yada yada-ing over the best part

George: You don’t think she’d “yada yada” sex…

Elaine: I’ve yada yada’d sex.

George: Really?

Elaine: Yeah. I met this lawyer, we went out to dinner, I had the lobster bisque, we went back to my place, yada yada yada, I never heard from him again.

Jerry: But you yada yada’d over the best part!

Elaine: No, I mentioned the bisque.

Seinfeld, “The Yada Yada”

A recent New Yorker profile introduces us to Elizabeth Chan, a woman who, we’re told, quit her job as an executive at Condé Nast to “pursue her dream of creating ‘a great Christmas standard’…that would be sung year after year for generations.” Yada yada yada, the article continues, she succeeded.

As Jerry would put it, they yada yada’d over the best part.

Chan clawed her way to the top of the New York media world only to follow her bliss to the top of the holiday jingle charts instead. This move was in no way related to the many waves of layoffs at the company. No, Chan left the prestigious, high-paying gig on her own terms motivated purely by a lifelong desire to write new Christmas classics.

What happened next? Naturally, Chan worked really, really hard. She wrote a song a day for two years, recording 50 of her favorites with professional musicians on her own dime. Money was an object—her family dipped into savings to make this work. (I’d dip into my own savings for a transcript of that conversation: “OK, one more year of Christmas songwriting, then I promise I’ll go back to the day job. Don’t worry about a nest egg. Everyone plans to retire at 75 these days.”)

Sending demos to record companies got Chan nowhere, but then a “colleague”—I thought she’d left her day job—suggested she “put out the songs herself.” 

I think you’ll agree this is all very mysterious. Does putting one’s Christmas songs out oneself involve uploading them to Spotify and then making a blood sacrifice to Krampus

The New Yorker continues its obfuscation: “A ten-thousand-dollar Kickstarter campaign later,” Chan was able to release her album. Yada yada yada, one of the songs hit the Billboard chart above a song by Kelly Clarkson, whose record label had, ironically, rejected Chan’s demo. Today, Chan has seven albums and four Billboard hits under her belt, which I assume is hung with jingle bells and holly. 

Stories like this are the poison in your ears, folks. Chan’s true path to success is so heavily, deliberately obscured by the writer (and Chan’s publicity team) that you have to read between the lines between the lines to even guess at whatever actually got her to where she is today.

Was it her astonishing but as-yet-unheralded singing voice? Her voice was “good,” the magazine informs us.

Could she rely on a wide network of key industry insiders and tastemakers she’d met in her position as an executive at Condé Nast? We’re never told.

According to one of the most reputable sources of journalism in the country, Chan’s breakout success appears to have been the result of grit, determination, and talent.

Uh huh.

Then you remember that Condé Nast owns The New Yorker and things start to make a little more sense. At least, it answers the question of why the article was written in the first place. Chan and her path to success remain a mystery. To paraphrase Mariah Carey, all I want for Christmas is to know how the hell Chan hit the charts.

There’s always a story, guys. Always. When something achieves outlier-level success, there’s a reason. Usually several. But it’s difficult to find out what those reasons are, let alone replicate them, because of smoke-and-mirrors crap like this. It makes it very hard for aspiring creators outside the winner’s circle to find success themselves. There’s a parallel here to rising income inequality. Not only do we pull the ladder up after climbing it, we use the rungs as weapons to beat off intruders. 

We are a society that traffics in illusion. The perfect parable of this can now be seen on Netflix, one of the two new documentaries about the Fyre Festival fiasco. Serial scamtrepreneur Billy McFarland lured a bunch of young people with too much money, too much time, and not enough common sense to an entirely inadequate stretch of beach in the Bahamas for a Coachella-turned-refugee-camp through sheer Instragram influence.

“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser,” McFarland explains, on camera, to the supermodels he hired for the promotional shoot.

That’s the cultural moment we’re in. “Pipe dream” refers to the hallucinations people experienced while lounging away in 19th-century opium dens. No coincidence we’re in the middle of an unparalleled opioid epidemic. Did you know that “for every three additional payments that companies made to doctors per 100,000 people in a county, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids there a year later were 18 percent higher“?

Tell the ugly truth today, warts and all. It isn’t easy, but it’s the only way we’re ever going to get out of this.

most of what you read is crazy and probably fake

Turns out, what was formerly known as Moldawer’s Law—”experts struggle the most in their own area of expertise”—is even older than I’d thought. Hundreds and hundreds of years older. From Ram Dass:

I was only allowed to read the books of realized beings. And that’s a very subtle and interesting point. See, when you read a book written by a guy who’s writing about realization, what you’re really getting from him is all the reasons he isn’t a realized being. I mean, some of the great Westerners that are writing beautiful, insightful books about Eastern method, all they’re really doing at the vibrational level is they’re taking people on their own trip as to why they’re not a realized being themselves…The rule of the game is you read only books by people who made it.

The former Harvard professor is referring to his spiritual tutelage under Neem Karoli Baba in the 1960s, but it applies to every type of “thought leadership” and the question of what we choose to put into our delicate, impressionable heads. Read only books by people who’ve “made it.” If you can figure out who they are. I certainly don’t know.

Speaking of “thought leadership”: Beyond being dated and tired, the term is entirely too lofty, too aspirational, even a little bit extra. My clients consult, speak, write books, and teach courses in order to share their expertise with the people who need it. Good, honest labor. Sure, sometimes they have “thoughts” or even a Big Idea—TED talk: “What if a stitch in time doesn’t save nine?”—but don’t we all? Have ideas, I mean? Where does “leadership” come into it? Do they lead the thoughts? Do the thoughts lead other thoughts? It’s turtles all the way down. No, they’re not thought leaders. They are instruction workers. Instruction workers who need to form a union. TED doesn’t even pay its speakers! Instruction workers are going to get steamrolled by Big Thought if they don’t organize.

I picture people opening these emails—the ones that actually do open these emails—thinking “What’s Dave on about this time?” It’s true. I’ve always been an “on about” type of guy. I suppose it could be worse. I could be up to something, into something else, or at it again. But no, I’m usually on about something.

Today, I’m on about the fact that Most of What You Read on the Internet is Written by Insane People. Sure, I’ve long suspected this, but it’s nice to have it articulated so bluntly. It goes beyond the 1% rule that only a tiny fraction of any Internet community adds content while the rest silently lurks. There’s something different about the type of people who regularly contribute and get noticed. It takes a certain kind of crazy.

The problem is that the rest of us continuously reframe our idea of normal based on the beliefs and experiences we read about. (And watch, live, 24/7, thanks to the precipitous rise of Twitch streaming.) The 1% wields an inordinate influence on what the rest of us think normal looks like.

This effect is especially pronounced with teens. Right at their most impressionable, they’re on Reddit going down a rabbit-hole about government conspiracies or libertarian economic policy with a guy who, had he sat next to them on a public bus, they’d quickly switch seats. To paraphrase the New Yorker, on the internet, nobody knows you’re wearing Crocs with socks and you smell like potatoes.

It gets even weirder with Twitch streamers. Yes, you can see what they look like, but their madness is equally disguised, in this case by photogenic faces. Youth is a stubborn thing. It’s only once you hit your mid-twenties or so that your inner darkness start to be reflected in your appearance and, overnight, you’re a melted candle. (I stubbornly resisted linking to anyone there. You know what I’m talking about.)

Ice Poseidon and other streamers are just a new wave in an old phenomenon. It’s just as true of journalism and books. Most of what you read is written by insane people. Writing is hard! The more they write, the crazier they must be. And, because of all the noise online, the more they write, the more likely they are to break out, the more they get read, the faster the merry-go-round goes round.

Think I’m wrong? Ask yourself: Are things crazier this year than they were last year? What about 2018 versus 2017? I rest my case.

Here’s the worst part: Not only is everything online crazy, it’s also mostly fake. YouTube predicts a moment when more than half of all their traffic will be spam bots, at which point their algorithms—trained by the majority—will label the bot behavior authentic and human behavior fraudulent. Can you imagine if this “Inversion” takes us out before the Singularity? Skynet is going to be incredibly disappointed if he has no reason to build killer robots.

Alright, enough for today. Time to pack up the helmet, lunch pail, and Baron Fig Archer pencil. Nothing to be ashamed of in a good, honest day’s instruction work.

DIY writing retreat

In South Korea, people now pay to be locked up. The daily grind there is so stressful, prison has become a viable alternative: no deadlines, no performance evaluations, no commute. This could be the next big South Korean import since The Good Doctor… 

It’s been a while since the last Maven Game. Short version: a realization struck me after I wrote that essay about Forged in Fire. Who was I to scoff at the hapless smith trying to forge two blades at once and failing at both? I’ve got six blades going. Seven! So I decided to take a hiatus and focus on my larger projects.

Yeah, I needed the break, but, ultimately, too many things annoy me about the writing life—I actually need this outlet or I might go crazy. Plus, it didn’t hurt that fellow newsletterers like Margo nudged me to get back in the traces. When I told Margo the reason for my silence, she wrote:

Tell your readers they are not crazy for also trying to do all the things. There is a lovely lesson here on keeping your head down and focusing on the work. As wonderful as email newsletters are there are some weeks where it feels like that’s the only writing that got done, which can be a problem (especially if you care about your work). 

There’s an expression that goes, “Polish here, shine there.” The idea being, there are helpful things you do that may not actually give you that tingling sensation in the moment: “That tingle means it’s working.” In fact, the stuff that makes dandruff shampoo tingle is not the active ingredient. Manufacturers know that we look for that tingle. Whenever we put effort in, we want results or reassurance. Unfortunately, the highest uses of our time don’t deliver immediate results. Nor do they tingle.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never experienced a runner’s high. I’ve never left a workout feeling a relaxed glow or concomitant surge of well-being. Exercise of any kind leaves me cranky and filled with resentment at the world. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good for me, only that I have to look harder to see that it’s helping. Polish here, shine there. Over the course of a week or a month, I can see how regular exercise lifts my mood and elevates my spirits. In the moment, however, just rage. RAGE!

Same with writing the Maven Game. No tingle, plenty of frustration, but the long-term benefits to my psyche and skill-set are more than worth the investment of time and effort. I just have to remind myself of that from time to time.

This is why it’s helpful to keep a journal or otherwise document your work. You start to see some patterns. What works for you, long-term? What behaviors once did, but got lost in the shuffle?

Here’s a vote in favor of a sabbatical, however short: In college, I had too much time to write, if anything. Once I got a day job as a writer, my own creative output ground to a halt. I decided I needed a writing retreat. Not having the ambition to chase down a prestigious spot at Yaddo or Bread Loaf, I adopted a DIY approach. Taking out a paper map—this is a while back—I looked for someplace unpopular (read: cheap) and close to the city. Next thing I knew, I was driving to a motel in New London, Connecticut, to spend a few days writing fiction.

The room was small and boring and so was New London—perfect. Over a few days, I completed four or five stories, never having really completed any before. I’d started many stories by that point, but I’d only ever finished plays. The next week, I fired the results off to various literary journals I’d dug up at the library and got one published at the Missouri Review. Literary fiction bucket list item, checked. In the end, I enjoyed all the benefits of a true writing retreat without any need for a prisoner jumpsuit.

So, back to the weekly cadence. Let’s see if we can make it all the way through 2019 without another service outage. 

One last thing: We took the kids to see Santa at Macy’s for the first time. Afterward, my son said, “You should ask Santa for something for yourself. Like a stapler. Or an autobiography of David Lynch.” How did he know I was nearly finished with Lynch’s Room to Dream? He explained his reasoning: I like “books about weird people” and “weird people named David like David Bowie.” Too true. 

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.