writing for the king

Do you want me to strike this?

Ron Albertson, Waiting for Guffman

I took a few stage-directing classes in school, but I didn’t learn much in the way of formal technique. (The theater department of my liberal arts college abhorred all things “pre-professional.”) When directing a play, I’d sit and watch the actors run a scene, tell them what to do differently, then have them run it again. It wasn’t elegant, but it got the job done.

At my school, theater majors were given only one opportunity to direct a full-length play, as a senior project. In my eagerness to get my theatrical career off the ground—unlike my peers, I’d never done any theater prior to college—I mounted six or seven indie productions in various spots around campus before my senior year. Mamet, Pinter, that sort of thing. Good times. Nothing beats putting on a show.

Forging ahead like this without any oversight and without much experience as an actor being directed, I developed an array of bad habits as a fledgling director. It was only during my senior-year project that the directing professor himself had the opportunity to watch me work outside of a classroom exercise.

“You’re directing for the king,” he observed, glumly. My first instinct was to take this as a compliment—who wouldn’t want to be royalty-oriented?—but no. “In the past, the king would sit square in the middle of the audience,” he explained. “All the action would be directed toward him. Everyone else would just have to deal with what they got. Today, things are a bit more democratic.”

“Oh,” I said, still unsure where he was going with the history lesson.

“You might try sitting somewhere else,” he clarified.

“Ah,” I said. “Yes.”

So I moved and watched a scene. Moved again, watched again. I discovered he was right. Arranging the scenery and blocking out the action, I hadn’t given any thought to the people on the right, let alone the people on the left. Or, for that matter, the poor bastards in the back. I’d only been interested in optimizing my own experience as an audience member, and I had the best seat in the house.

A theatrical production has to “play” to an audience of hundreds or even thousands of people. Great stage directors—Bartlett Sher is one of my favorites—handle this challenge so elegantly, you often forget about your lousy seats. It just doesn’t matter. You’re right there, having an experience. Unless, of course, there’s a column in front of you. (I’d like to see Bart direct his way around that!)

A book also has to play to a group of readers, an audience. Might be 5,000, might be 500,000, but it’s not infinite and it’s not just you. Don’t write for the king. Move around the “auditorium,” Imagine the various perspectives of all those potential readers. Do they know what you’re assuming they know? Do they enjoy what you’re assuming they enjoy? Will they find this or that aspect of your subject quite as fascinating as you do?

The eyes of a reader are the ultimate proscenium arch. As “director” of the reader’s experience, you’ve got an unlimited budget for sets and props. You can cast literally anyone you want. You can mount a production of extraordinary scope, spanning eons and galaxies. Writing a book may not be as fun as mounting a play—or, well, at all—but it’s an extraordinary privilege.

My professor may not have taught me much in the way of technique, but he identified a blind spot in my working style that still hinders me today. No matter how good you get, you can’t see what you don’t see; I wish I had more teachers like him.

don’t believe a word of it

In response to last week’s essay—about revising your work without getting bogged down in the details—Maven Game reader Nick Matiasz writes:

Your advice reminds me of Dr. Betty S. Flowers’s four-step approach to writing — madmanarchitectcarpenterjudge.

Nick provides a link to a page on Google Books summarizing Dr. Flowers’s approach in Garner on Language and Writing, which, unfortunately, goes for more than a hundred bucks on Amazon. (Time for a reprint edition, Garner.)

The summary is well worth reading. Essentially, Flowers suggests you work in phases, restricting yourself to the phase you’re in and letting other concerns wait. In “Carpenter” mode, your job is solely to write according to the outline and preparation you completed in “Architect” mode, and so on. It’s excellent advice; my problem has always been staying in the same mode and not jumping around compulsively.

(While Garner’s book is a bit spendy for me, Nick highly recommends Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, which I’ve got on the bedstand now.)

(Try not to look so relieved that I’m finally learning how to write.)

Also: my pal Kaushik Viswanath is now an editor over at Marker, Medium’s new business publication, where he will focus on business books. As an example of what to expect from Kaushik, here’s Byrne Hobart with a Cynic’s Guide to Reading Business Books:

There are plenty of books on how to win the lottery, and the authors can be totally truthful: If you believe the so-called law of attraction will help you win the lotto, and then win the lottery, you could probably get people to read your book about it. But if, like a million other people, you lost the lottery, see if anyone will buy your book called How the Law of Attraction Didn’t Help Me Win the Lottery at All. Not even the law of attraction will help that one fly off the shelves.

Lots of painful truth in that one. Also, How the Law of Attraction Didn’t Help Me Win the Lottery at All is exactly the kind of book I would acquire were I still an in-house editor. Which is why it’s probably best that I’m not. Either way, go read Marker.

Hobart’s piece puts me in mind of Scott Alexander’s recent essay, “BOOK REVIEW: ALL THERAPY BOOKS.” Alexander is a psychiatrist taking on other psychiatrists, but to my eye, nearly all of this applies to books of advice in general:

All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root!

Yep. So much of what Alexander identifies here is a consistent pattern across the majority of successful business and self-help books. It’s a long, brilliant, provocative piece—like pretty much everything on Alexander’s site, Slate Star Codex—and well worth reading if you’re a Maven yourself. Getting attention for your ideas and making a convincing case for them while sticking to what you can definitively prove is no minor epistemological feat. The truth is a slippery thing.

I’ve been attending Buddhism classes lately. The Buddhists would have you believe that everything is a slippery thing. But I refuse to get too attached to that notion.

guy, wash your glasses

Any random lifestyle influencer can tell you to wash your face (and become spectacularly successful with that important, if somewhat obvious, piece of advice). But how many will remind you to wash your glasses? Two? Three? I’m going to own this niche.

If you haven’t already guessed, my New Year’s resolution is to enter the lifestyle influencer game myself. I’m not staking my claim on dirty lenses entirely, but they’re a start. To be your best self, you’ll need clean windows, clean laptop screens, and clean smartphones, too. So I’ve got plenty of material to cover in future books. If I can get my Instagram off the ground—mostly me with sparkly clean glasses (#wokeuplikethis) but occasionally “candid” shots with unclean glasses to be vulnerable and authentic—I’ll parlay my success into paid corporate speaking gigs. I’ll just tell them the isopropyl alcohol is a metaphor for Millennials. Or tariffs.

Don’t smudge my vision, haters.

Welcome to another year of mavening with yours truly. Let’s take this opportunity to reassess. Why do I write this? Who do you read it? Is the point here “writing advice”? Unless that advice is, first and foremost, “go write,” it’s probably not going to help. David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, used to tell his writing students that “any time spent thinking about writing is wasted except when one is in a room writing.” As someone who thinks about his writing more than he sits in a room doing it, this notion struck me like a wet cattle prod. Now, if I catch myself thinking about how I’m going to write something, I either start writing it that way immediately or drop the line of thought altogether before it consumes itself like Ouroboros.

Moldawer’s Axiom: Save it for the room.

There has to be a balance between planning the work (or, worse, optimizing the planning of the work) and actually doing the work. In 2020, my resolution is to maintain that balance and I urge you to do the same. Establish a consistent writing practice before wolfing down any more tasty tips. In fact, in 2020 I prohibit you from reading any week’s Maven Game—or anything else about the craft and vocation of writing—until you’ve written something for the week. What’s fair—an hour? One measly hour spent writing before you read about writing? Do you think you can keep that commitment this year?

OK, here’s the advice, but only read it after you’ve written something yourself. Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering at Slack, writes about the pain of remodeling:

[You] start wondering, “Are they going to fix that?” Defects. Partly completed work. Small dents. Dings. As you start to finish, you can see everything that is not quite right.

This puts me in mind of Jim Dillon’s story from a few weeks back about taking his car into the body shop. As an experienced woodworker, Jim couldn’t help but see the many tiny deformities in the factory finish of a brand-new fender. The same thing happens whenever I read something I’ve written or something a client has sent to me for an editorial pass. The dents and dings overwhelm my capacity for higher-order thought. They actively inhibit my ability to take the material in as a whole and improve on it. So caught up in minor imperfections—two hyphens instead of an em dash is a particular pet peeve—I can’t see the big picture. Then, by the time I’m doing fixing them, I’ve got nothing left in the tank.

As writers, the big picture should be the only picture we care about. Any good editor can clean up imperfections. They don’t need your expertise to do so and you don’t need theirs to share yours. Isaac Asimov wrote hundreds of books in his lifetime and his manuscripts were riddled with errors. He knew his time was better spent writing more material. He left it to others to clean up the mess.

Crucially, this philosophy makes sense even if the clean-up crew is you. Lopp’s contractor offers one approach:

[He] whipped out a roll of blue painter’s tape and gave us the following instructions: 1. You are going to see everything that is wrong with our work from now until we’re done. That’s fine. 2. When you see something that needs attention, mark it with this blue tape. 3. We will fix everything that has the blue tape.

The next time you get caught up in buffing out all the dings and dents instead of actually writing, try this discipline: highlight the problems instead of fixing them. In blue. Then keep reading. Force yourself to stay at 30,000 feet while the fires of creative inspiration still burn. Use your energy to make additions and changes that matter before it runs out. Then and only then, polish. Or hire a pro. Otherwise, you’ll spend your writing session copy-editing and end with very little in the way of new ideas and interesting connections to show for your time.

(Speaking of polishing, post a selfie wearing smudged glasses with hashtag #instamaven for 10% off my new brand of eco-friendly disposable lens wipes, “Glasswipes.”)

stop trying to drink the ocean

In Norse mythology—I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s collection in particular—Thor and his brother, Loki, confront the troll Útgarða-Loki. In one of a series of humiliating defeats, Thor engages in a drinking contest with the troll. Útgarða-Loki empties his horn with a single gulp. Thor, however, despite quaffing three times with all his divine might, finds that his own drinking horn is still full. How can this be? Thor is crushed. Maybe he’s not cut out for this god business. Luckily, the troll admits to deceit. One end of Thor’s drinking horn had secretly led to the sea. Thor had, in fact, been trying to drink the entire ocean. His divine thirst hadn’t drained it, of course, but he had managed to create the tides in the process. Thor’s self-esteem is restored.

Give yourself a break. You’ll never know the rules of the game you’re really playing. Your troll will never admit to deceit. Even in major league sports, with millions of people watching and millions of dollars at stake, cheating happens all the time. Recently, it was discovered that the Houston Astros have been stealing signs for years. I can’t find the link, unfortunately, but one sportswriter reached out to the pitchers, eight or more, who were fired after losing to the Astros during this period. He wanted to know how they’d felt to discover their careers had ended through no fault of their own. I think we can all imagine.

Think how stacked the deck must be in less-scrutinized arenas of competition. Book publishing, for example. A friend of mine worked with an author on his first book. He had a front-row seat to that author’s aggressive and spammy marketing tactics, ethically questionable even by the lax standards of trade nonfiction. The book became a massive best-seller. Afterward, my friend asked the author if he’d be willing to do a podcast interview telling other authors how he had achieved his success. The author cheerfully agreed. So, what was his secret? How had he turned a middling platform and a tired subject into fame and fortune?

“I did it just like anybody else, I suppose,” this would-be Útgarða-Loki replied. “I worked really, really hard on writing a good book. I blogged regularly. And, of course, I updated social media with useful content.” In other words, the usual bullshit so many aspiring authors imitate only to find that, somehow, the drinking horn remains full.

In the words of the great sage Queen Elsa, “let it go.” Stop trying to drink the ocean and start enjoying the ale. The New Yorker recently profiled the sculptor Charles Ray.

Each of his sculptures involves a lengthy process of thinking and tinkering, over the course of which its materials might change, and its scale might shift. “I spent three years looking at details on a sculpture that I was working on, including a toenail,” he recalled. “And I asked [my wife,] ‘Will anyone ever notice the slight changes I’m making to this one thing, the subtleties?,’ and she said, ‘No, but the meaning in these details adds up over time, like an ecosystem.’ “

The problem isn’t that a handful of authors cheat and lie and manipulate to soak up all the attention. The problem is that you’re trying so hard to control the uncontrollable—it’s exhausting for you and ruinous for your work.

If you’re anything like me, part of you hopes to use the remaining days of 2019 not to relax but to tackle all those important-but-not-urgent things you’d hoped to achieve this year, your own writing front and center. Sure, open up that document and get some words down during this respite from day-to-day demands. But don’t let your writing project become another New Year’s resolution with some lofty goal resting on factors outside your control. Face the page. Sweat the details. Enjoy the process. Leave the aspirations and the machinations to the Astros and Útgarða-Lokis of the world. True satisfaction lies in making the “slight changes” that add up to an ecosystem.

See you in 2020.