going through the goop

Just hold that happy thought, Peter!

—Tinker Bell, Hook

I’d always imagined a pupa as something straight out of the original Transformers cartoon, the caterpillar sealing itself up in its chrysalis only to BI-BUH-BO-BOO-BUH into a beautiful butterfly. Turns out, no. The caterpillar actually digests itself, squirting enzymes throughout its own body to dissolve all its tissues. This goop is then assembled into a new insect. Thus the caterpillar doesn’t transform; it transcends. Only through this sacrifice can the butterfly take shape.

I’ve come to learn that I need order in my life in order to function. Absolutely require it, in fact. Yet to write anything worthwhile, I must pass through one or more stages of disorder—of goop—with my ideas jumbling together and coming apart and turning inside-out in extraordinarily uncomfortable ways. I think this is why messy thinkers are so creative and prolific. They’re comfortable working with goop. Not me. I hate it. But when I refuse to acknowledge the necessity of the goop stage, I become inescapably blocked.

I say this as much to myself as I do to you: There is no creative work without a goop stage. Likewise, no creative career. You, too, must become goop in order to fly, not just once but over and over again throughout your working life.

Or you could just stop creating altogether. I still think about law school now and then. I really don’t like goop and I don’t think I ever will.

I raise this in regard to last week’s essay on having the courage to plan your entire writing career out like an opera singer.

More than a decade ago, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published and became an international phenomenon. To date, nearly 100 million copies of the book and its sequels have been sold worldwide. Dragon Tattoo wasn’t to my taste, but I still found myself admiring the author, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. The guy had vision.

Larsson embarked on writing his Millennium “trilogy” (he actually had a ten-book series in mind) with absolute confidence in its eventual success. His professional experience had been entirely rooted in journalism—he’d written some short stories as a teenager—but he told friends he was certain the books he was writing would not only find an audience but make him rich to boot. Were it not for his sudden, if not shocking, heart attack at fifty—according to Wikipedia, “his diet largely consisted of cigarettes, processed food and copious amounts of coffee”—Larsson would have far exceeded his ambitious goals.

Though he may not have used the Swedish version of the term, Larsson had decided to write potboilers. In “the old-fashioned days,” as my daughter likes to call the past, authors were sometimes forced to lower themselves to writing books with commercial potential. This kind of book was called a potboiler because it was intended to “boil one’s pot,” i.e. pay the author’s daily living expenses so they could write “real” books, i.e. the artsy kind most people don’t want to read.

Isn’t that funny? Can you imagine knowing how to sit down and write a book guaranteed to make a lot of money and doing so only under duress? Today, nobody knows how to do that!

Here’s the thing about Larsson: He’d nearly completed the third book before he found a willing publisher for the first one. That’s confidence. That is exactly the kind of long-term thinking I advocated in last week’s essay. Larsson could have stopped working on the series after finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, investing all his energy into finding a publisher or simply waiting for approval to come to him, as so many would-be authors tend to do. Instead, he kept working, kept executing on his plan. More goop. He knew, or allowed himself to feel, that success was inevitable. As a result, he felt no need to spare himself any effort. He had no fear of that universally dreaded fate: working on a project that doesn’t end up succeeding in the end. (Isn’t that the real terror lurking in every blocked writer? “Wasted effort”?)

In retrospect, of course, Larsson’s second and third book would never have been written had he waited, but even if he’d had many years ahead of him, putting his project on hold because of any external circumstance would likely have sapped the precious motive energy at the heart of it, the kernel driving the books in his own mind.

Ideas just don’t age well, people. When have you ever looked back at a scribbled note from more than a few months ago and thought, “Hey, I can use this. Glad I held onto it.” More often than not, it’s “I can’t believe I thought that way back in May. How embarrassing. I’ll have to eat this paper to hide the evidence.” Use it or lose it.

Meanwhile, creative seeds grow to all sizes. One idea is just a pyrite nugget; another is a vein of gold so deep it threads the roots of the earth. Antiheroine Lisbeth Salander runs deep enough that another Swedish journalist, David Lagercrantz, is continuing the series himself with the permission of Larsson’s estate.

Think of how many ideas of similar potential never achieved their true scope because their creators didn’t have a signed contract from the Universe promising them life everlasting to complete their work under perfect conditions and blockbuster success at the end of the road. Think of how many great works only exist because their creators held onto their confidence in the face of universal rejection or, worse, apathy.

Personally, I never feel all that certain I’m even going to finish what I start. The idea of beginning a project with full confidence in its eventual success feels crazy to me. And yet, we have two children.

Unlike, say, science or economics, writing seems to benefit from a kind of absolute self-confidence that simply has to be decided, worn like a mantle. Yes, I will finish this. Yes, it will turn out as well as I imagine, no matter how gruesome it appears along the way. Come what may, I’m going through the goop.

Your work will suck until it doesn’t. Always. To quote multiple characters in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, “That’s the job.” There’s nothing pretty going on inside a chrysalis, either. You don’t judge the butterfly by its goop. All you can ever really do is decide to have full confidence in your ability to wrest order from chaos. As Tinker Bell tells Peter Pan, the trick is to hold onto that happy thought. Otherwise, you’re going to eat dirt.

plan your career like a divo

The opera singer Farinelli (1705–1782) sang comfortably in all vocal registers, tenor through soprano. He was a European celebrity of the highest order, an 18th-century Beyoncé, and while Her Beyness can sing across four octaves to Farinelli’s three, I doubt she can hold a note for a full minute as he was said to have done. (Although, really, did they even have clocks back then? They probably just did one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, glanced at a sun dial, and rounded it up. Rest assured, Bey continues to reign supreme across the centuries.)

Today, we can only imagine the supposed “purity of tone” of a true castrato—the sound must have been pretty special to, you know, apply for the gig. That said, with the resurgence of interest in traditional techniques—farm-to-table food, vinyl records, medieval combat—it’s only a matter of time before some hipster Millennial is like, “Timmy, you know how we need a few more impressive extracurriculars if you’re going to get into an Ivy League school?” In the meantime, however, the closest approximation to the voice of a castrato is that of a countertenor, a man with the range of a female mezzo-soprano.

Good opera singers are rare. Good countertenors, very. When one crops up, it can cause an international stir. (This is why I volunteered to play soprano clarinet in high school, a.k.a. “The Devil’s Migraine.” Why practice harder when you can just specialize in something weird?)

The New Yorker profiles Polish opera singer Jakub Józef Orliński, who is not only a good countertenor but also, like Farinelli was said to be in his day, easy on the eyes: “[If] Michelangelo’s statue of David were to come to life, he would look and sound like Orliński.” (Rebecca Mead calls this the consensus of fans. Sure, Rebecca. His fans thought that comparison up.)

Orliński rose to worldwide prominence right after his debut performance in 2017. An ensemble scheduled to perform on a French radio show dropped out and Orliński was tapped as a last-minute replacement. Unaware the performance would also be streamed on Facebook Live, the living statue rolled out of bed and arrived at the venue grungy, unshaven, and hungover. Twist: he nailed it anyway. Nearly 4 million YouTube views later, Orliński is an opera superstar.

Hard work, talent, opportunity, and luck. It’s a nice story, as sudden infamations (?) go. In an era when so many success stories feel more orchestrated than the origin stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Orliński’s rise is a refreshing change of pace. There is no way a PR firm would have risked dressing a talented countertenor like a frat boy if this were some shadowy viral marketing scheme—this only happened because Jakub Orliński is a frat boy.

Orliński’s story got me thinking about the unusual lives of opera singers in general. Their careers run along lines similar to those of professional athletes: a relatively short physical prime that must be leveraged to the hilt. That said, they also have to work within the constraints of the international opera world, where productions at the major houses are cast years in advance. Thus, an in-demand singer is in the privileged position of looking at the entire span of their singing career and mapping it out, to a certain extent.

It strikes me that any one of us could take the long view of our own careers this way, if only we chose to do so. Sure, there might be more guesswork involved. Orliński and his teachers can draw on centuries of operatic knowledge to estimate how long he will be able to perform at the highest levels. Writing talent, on the other hand, waxes and wanes much more unpredictably, judging from the careers of nearly any set of writers you might select. Still, I bet you could make an educated guess, and that would be far better than making no guess at all.

Why even make a plan when there are so many unknown variables? Beyond the benefits often ascribed to goal-setting in general, writers who haven’t broken through yet are impatient: they’re so eager to have written a great book that they can barely bring themselves to start writing anything. In contrast, established writers often display remarkable, even preternatural patience in developing their projects.

People who have yet to achieve recognition are in a hurry because they can’t help but compare themselves to successful writers. We look at those careers through the highly compressed lens of hindsight. We see how prolific a writer like Dave Eggers appears to be over the span of decades and overlook the fact that a single project—his recent, excellent work of nonfiction The Monk of Mokha, for example—took a full three years or more to write. We see the brief periods of exciting acclaim and recognition after publication and ignore the long stretches of solitary work that constitute most of an author’s waking life. To an outsider, it’s just a huge list of books—fiction, nonfiction, memoir, young adult, let alone, in Eggers’s case, his work with McSweeney’s and 826 Valencia.

All of this comparison is enough to bring any non-famous author to the brink of despair, particularly after spending an entire morning toiling away on a manuscript only to delete the handful of paragraphs you’ve managed to assemble in that time.

Thanks to the combination of in-demand talent with limited competition, the world-class opera singer is given the gift of patience. He knows there will be enough jobs, enough acclaim, enough money. The fact of a career is never in question. It’s only a question of how, the execution of that career. Which productions? Which albums? Which American Express ads?

Chicken-and-egg-like, patience offers profound economic benefits just as it seems to arise from economic success. In fact, it might be a successful writer’s most powerful advantage over the rest of us, the true distinguishing element. Patience allows you to invest the appropriate amount of time and effort in every project and to give each task its due. By acting as if you will be successful and planning out the course of your entire writing career with the steady confidence of a divo like Jakub Józef Orliński, you are empowered to commit to what you’re doing in a new way. And only through complete commitment to our work can we ever bring it to its full potential.

So, just for fun, sit back and imagine what you might begin, how you might work, what you might accomplish—if you knew for certain that you had a long and successful creative career ahead of you. That you no longer had to wonder whether anyone wanted what you have to share, but simply had to decide what to make and when to make it. Then, as an exercise, map it out. What would you do with the next three years of your life? The next three after that?

The days are short but the years are long. Don’t wait on success to plan for it.

writing is thirsty work

First: my friend Michael Margolis has a new book coming out in October: Story 10x. It’s about getting your business’s story straight—an admirable goal.

In announcing the book to his mailing list, Michael mentioned “Moldawer’s Rule” (technically, Moldawer’s Law, but I forgive you, Michael): authors tend to struggle the most in their own area of expertise. In Michael’s words:

If you’re going to write a book on time management, you’re going to be a walking hot mess with how you manage your writing deadlines. If you’re going to write a book on meditation, you’ll be the most un-zen person behind closed doors.

I know I’m biased because it’s my law, but this is always true. Always.

And it isn’t really my rule or my law. As I’ve said before, it was actually Esalen’s Law first, and at some point it was probably Ug’s Law. (Ug edited cuneiform tablets with a chisel.) Whatever you call it and whoever coined it, Michael’s been facing it in writing his own book:

I’m being asked to lower my guard and practice what I preach in ways I didn’t even know were out of alignment. The Moldawer Rule in full effect. Now, it all makes sense—of course, my own fears, hangups, and childhood traumas have defined this quest.

This is why writing a book is such a profound and vital experience, regardless of what you end up doing with the finished product. It’s pure Joseph Campbell—you go into the cave and strike down Darth Vader only to see your own face underneath the mask.

Thankfully, Michael’s quest is at an end—minus the lightsaber duel—and we can all go pre-order the book on Amazon.

There’s also a plant—I’ve never seen it, but I’m told you can cut a piece the size of a heart from this plant and the next day it will be filled with a delicious liquid.

The English Patient

You’re stuck on an island. What’s the first thing you do? (“Pop quiz, hot shot.“)

You could spend time in all sorts of productive ways: constructing a wattle and daub hut for shelter (and YouTube fame), foraging for fruit like limes and coconuts (and then putting the lime in the coconut), or listening to that one album you selected in an online desert-island quiz all those years ago (“Sure, I like ‘Go Your Own Way’ and ‘Don’t Stop,’ but did I really think I was going to spend the rest of my natural life listening to Rumours over and over? I think I’ll just let the fire ants devour me.”)

While all of these things will need to happen eventually, you have to put first things first if you intend to survive. Find water. You can’t last long without it, particularly in hot conditions, and finding water takes time. There might be a small stream—you’ll need to improvise a way of collecting that trickle. When it does rain, you’ll want hollowed-out gourds to capture as much of the downpour as possible. Later, as you build and forage and listen to Fleetwood Mac on that (miraculously intact) vinyl record player, fresh water will accumulate. By the time you’re thirsty, that water will be ready to drink. You’ll thank yourself for your foresight.

Water is unpredictable. Sometimes it’s scarce, sometimes it’s steady, sometimes there’s a deluge. All you can do is create caches so that when the water does flow, you retain as much as possible for the dry times ahead.

Likewise when writing a book. I think I’ve talked before about the importance of starting your platform-building efforts before you get too involved in writing your book proposal. Same idea—growing an audience takes time and the process can’t wait until you’re already seeking a publisher.

Here, I’m talking about the contents of the book itself. Don’t wait until you’re sitting down at your laptop to come up with your material. Like water, ideas are unpredictable. Sometimes they flow. More often, they don’t. What many would-be writers mean by “writer’s block” is simply that they didn’t plan ahead and start collecting any trickles in advance. Now they’re stranded on a blank page with nothing to drink.

To write a book, you need ideas, relevant ideas pertaining directly to the project in front of you. Ideas that fit beneath the parts and chapters and subheads and sub-subheads of your overall structure.

The conscious mind represents only a tiny fraction of the brain. You’ve got all kinds of stuff in back of it: towns, factories, roads, bridges. Tremendous processing power, huge computing potential, most of it lying inert until you tell it that you have a problem to solve. Then, watch out. Your brain is very happy to puzzle away indefinitely with all that untapped capacity. You just need to give it an objective.

The cache method is simple but effective. Take a simple outline of your book, or a mind map (RIP, Tony Buzan). The order of ideas isn’t important. Now create a blank note for each chapter topic in the note-taking application of your choice. (Or, you know, in a notebook.) These are your caches.

From now on, look through your caches every morning. Then go about your day. Take a shower. Showers provide both water and ideas. (Talk about a mixed metaphor.) As your conscious mind wanders and your loofah loofahs (?), those rivulets of snowmelt will make their way down from the mountain peaks of your mind. By the time you’re toweling off your tootsies, you’ll have something—a few drops, maybe more—to add to the relevant cache.

Whether it’s a fragment of a thought or a major breakthrough isn’t important. Once you’ve established them, your caches will fill. Slowly or quickly, they will fill. Never again will you wash up on a blank page unprepared.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

an office you can’t refuse

Author and productivity expert Dave Crenshaw and I met up the other day for a chat about writing books. We made a super-short video. It was fun.

It’s good to be reminded how weird I look on camera—it keeps me invested in writing newsletters instead of unleashing my inner Timothée Chalamet. Thanks to my reverse body dysmorphia, the longer I go without looking in the mirror, the more convinced I become that I’m a Hollywood heartthrob.

It’s a challenge getting work done in those odd chunks of time between business meetings: finding power outlets, bathrooms, decent WiFi. By the time you get yourself set up properly, you have to head to your next appointment.

“Forget Starbucks,” a colleague told me. “Actual restaurants do co-working now. You reserve through an app and they give you a table of your own. The waiter brings you coffee. You can even hold meetings or make phone calls.”

“What kind of restaurants? Like, restaurant restaurants? With tablecloths?”

“Tablecloths, yeah,” he said. “Most restaurants in midtown sit empty half the day. Why not?”

Who doesn’t want to play Godfather for the day? I love the idea of meeting with an agent or author like I’m Michael Corleone. They’d walk in and I’d be sitting at the table with nothing but a tiny cup of espresso in front of me, a couple of tough guys in dark suits standing over my shoulder. (Goons are available through the app for an additional fee.)

But writing demands a different environment than meetings and phone calls do. Thankfully, I recently discovered an indie co-working space that fits the bill. Park Slope Desk has been thoughtfully designed to appeal to the persnickety, the fussy, the easily distracted. People like me. After all, anyone comfortable studying for the LSATs amidst the chaos of strollers and barely attended children in our local Blue Bottle wouldn’t be likely to sign up anyway.

Park Slope Desk is like working in the Amtrak quiet car. No talking, no music. There’s even a rack of bright-red noise-cancelling earmuffs for when the occasional squeak of a chair or tap of a keyboard is too much for you to handle. Almost no one uses them, but they send a powerful signal: We’re here to work.

Is there a quiet car in your neighborhood?

Reliability is paramount for me, even more than silence per se. Flaubert once suggested, “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your work.” Same applies for workspaces. Tools, too. In fact, your tools and your workspace are so closely intertwined it’s probably worth thinking of them as your environment. What can you do to create the most stable environment for your work?

In his newsletter, Craig Mod writes about fast software, meaning software that, for all its other faults, does not get in your way:

Fast software gives the user a chance to “meld” with its toolset. That is, not break flow. When the nerds upon Nerd Hill fight to the death over Vi and Emacs, it’s partly because they have such a strong affinity for the flow of the application and its meldiness. They have invested. The Tool Is Good, so they feel. Not breaking flow is an axiom of great tools.

Mod points to Sublime Text, a Mac text editor that operates without lag on even the largest files. Unfortunately, that app is designed for code, not prose, so Mod uses Ulysses, which is designed for writing but lags a lot:

[The] slowness feels indicative of unseen rot on the inside of the machine. The slowness is like an off smell. I don’t trust the application as much … Faith is tested: It makes me wonder how good the sync capabilities are. It makes me wonder if the application will lose data. Speed and reliability are often intuited hand-in-hand. 

That’s not Mod’s imagination—laggy and buggy do tend to go together. Here’s the crux:

A typewriter is an excellent tool because, even though it’s slow in a relative sense [emphasis mine], every aspect of the machine itself operates as quickly as the user can move. It is focused. There are no delays when making a new line or slamming a key into the paper. Yes, you have to put a new sheet of paper into the machine at the end of a page, but that action becomes part of the flow of using the machine, and the accumulation of paper a visual indication of work completed. It is not wasted work. There are no fundamental mechanical delays in using the machine. The best software inches ever closer to the physical directness of something like a typewriter.

Here’s my dream work environment: a typical office prior to 1980. Mahogany desk. Chair. Smith Corona typewriter. Ream of paper, replacement ribbons, wastebasket. Stereo with a stack of classical and jazz cassettes. Mr. Coffee, Folgers, Coffee-Mate, Sweet and Low packets. Those little brown plastic stirring rods. Mug with a logo.

Totally inconvenient, kind of gross, utterly reliable. Tell me you wouldn’t get an enormous amount of “deep work” done in a space like that. All these physical items are now available cheaper than dirt because an iPad can do so much more. Yet I’d pay a steep monthly fee and commute halfway across the city to work in an environment like that. Wouldn’t you?