perceived tranquillity rating

Whatever you’re working on, whatever you’re grappling with: relax, relax, relax some more. Breathe. Make it a deep one. Drop your shoulders. There you go. Now your jaw—open your mouth wide and then let all the tension go. That’s right. You’re doing it.

At a stressful moment in a recent Forged in Fire championship, one smith reminded himself, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” This is while slinging white-hot metal around a crowded forge with fifty grand on the line. Apparently that’s a SEAL slogan, so think sniper rifles and scuba gear. Your Word document qualifies. They don’t mean “deadline” literally.

The point isn’t that you can relax when the stakes are low. It’s that you must relax when the stakes are high. This wisdom can be found in nearly every religious, spiritual, and philosophical tradition, but I’ll need to tattoo it on my knuckles to remember it while I’m writing. (Here’s hoping the person with the needle is relaxed while they’re doing it.)

Accidents or destroying something can lead to something good. It can lead to something good. Very controlled things, not being open to, these boundaries, they just screw you. And you have to sometimes make a huge mess and make big mistakes to find that thing that you’re looking for.

David Lynch

Writers call this huge mess “the first draft.” There’s no sidestepping it. If you’re worrying about cleaning the mess up while you’re making it, you’ll never get to the good stuff.

The above quote, by the way, is from David Lynch: The Art Life. It’s a profoundly relaxed documentary. They dug up some archival footage and photographs, but mostly it’s just Lynch working quietly on his paintings or even just staring into space and thinking. Over the footage, Lynch talks into a microphone about life and work. I can only aspire to be so completely laid back in the making of something.

Laid back doesn’t mean easy. In fact, being controlling is a form of laziness—when I’m controlling, it’s because I’m trying to prevent a mess so I don’t have to clean it up later. Relaxing takes more vigor, more confidence.

You know that scene in a movie where two people in an office are so excited to get it on that the guy sweeps everything off his desk and then the woman tears his shirt off, sending buttons everywhere? Scenes like that take my wife and I right out of the story because we can’t help thinking of the poor PAs who had to reassemble the stuff on the desk and pick up all the buttons after each take for one stupid trope.

As the creator, however, you have to be willing to sweep everything off the desk.

My thinking about this case has become very uptight.

The Dude

To solve the case, relax. When the cocaine didn’t help, Holmes went the other direction and played his violin.

Concentration requires relaxation. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) was developed in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, two professors of psychology at the University of Michigan. According to the theory, focused attention uses up our reserve of mental energy. By spending time in “restorative environments,” we can replenish that energy. What makes an environment restorative? The Kaplans created a set of formal characteristics, but they boil down to “take a hike.” Get out of your space into a new environment and move through it.

No, not like Stephen Wolfram does, with a laptop tied around his neck so he can type as he walks. What you’re looking for is an area with soft fascination, when “there is enough interest in the surroundings to hold attention but not so much that it compromises the ability to reflect.” Think leaves rustling in a breeze or puffy white clouds drifting across the sky. (I like jazz and other “ambient” types of live performance for this, too. Sorry, jazz musicians.)

Researchers have developed a metric for soft fascination: the perceived Tranquility Rating (TR) of a given environment. The higher it is, the more effectively it will restore your depleted attention. Without regular intervals in a sufficiently tranquil environment, all your attempts at control will only strangle the life from your work.

Taking it easy is the best way to keep it.

the coffee situation

In publishing parlance, I’m not “in house” anymore, meaning I no longer hold a full-time editorial position at a book publisher. (Ironically, I now work in my actual house.)

It wasn’t an easy transition. When I left those roles behind, they stood me up in front of the industry and ceremonially stripped my elbow patches—it was a sad day for the regiment.

Back when I was in-house, I’d always assume the edges were deckled someplace else. (“Edges were deckled” means “grass is greener” in publishing parlance.) My current publishing house was always clueless about why one book worked over another. Surely the go-getters at [insert imprint name] who’d recently published [insert bestseller] knew something about publishing books that we didn’t.

So, in search of dark arts and hidden knowledge, I’d peregrinate from publisher to publisher. Inevitably, I’d discover that imprint B just wanted to know the secrets I must have picked up while at imprint A.

To quote the late, great William Goldman, nobody knows anything. Not in Hollywood, and not in New York book publishing either.

Thankfully, while the mechanics of popularity remain obscure even to seasoned publishing professionals, the mechanics of doing good work are not—if you’re paying attention. Editorial leapfrog revealed that certain environmental factors play a pivotal role in the quality of the finished product. Talent counts, sure, but it’s crucial to get the setup right, too.

While you can still fail with a great book, wouldn’t that be preferable to failing with a bad one?

Environment matters no matter the nature of the work. Years ago, I discovered the blog of an anonymous music engineer struggling to record a debut album with a deeply untalented band. (Eventually, the engineer, Eric Sarafin, revealed his identity and published the whole series of tales as The Daily Adventures of MixermanWell worth a read.)

What struck me were Sarafin’s descriptions of all the thoughtful effort he put into setting up the recording studio, both acoustically and otherwise. Carpets, pillows, lighting—like an ER nurse, he anticipated the needs of everyone involved and took hundreds of small actions to unimpede everyone’s flow. Clearly, he’d given a great deal of thought to creating an environment for creating.

Since then, I’ve made a hobby of reading books and other accounts of legendary workplaces, from Pixar to Xerox PARC to the Manhattan Project. I could write a book about the commonalities I’ve found, but I’ll leave that to the “future of work” and “organizational design” experts (who can then hire me to do so). What I will offer is a little shorthand to quickly gauge the BFI of a given outfit. (Brain Firehose Index.) Next time you enter a working environment, ask yourself a simple question:

What’s the coffee situation?

(Actually, don’t ask yourself. Ask the people who work there. That’s what I do.)

It doesn’t have to be good coffee. It doesn’t matter if the people there even drink the coffee. However, if the coffee is plentiful, easily accessible, and constantly on offer, you can count on a constellation of other factors related to good work, from a serendipity-boosting layout to an appropriately stimulating but non-distracting acoustic environment. The space itself doesn’t have to be pretty or clean, but it will be conducive. The coffee situation tells you a lot.

As an industry outsider, I now have the opportunity to visit the offices of all the major publishers. The coffee situation varies. If you have the opportunity to meet with a publisher about selling your own proposal, take note.

I’m not telling you to decide on a publisher—or on any other collaboration—based on whether you’re offered a cup of joe as you walk in the door. And then another one when that one’s finished. But, come on, shouldn’t you?

don’t take that first think

In a recent New Yorker:

Any work that resonates in some way can only be autobiographical. It just comes in different crypto-forms.

This is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who wrote and directed The Lives of Others. His new film, Never Look Away, is loosely based on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter—how loosely is up for debate

(You might know Gerhard Richter from his work as the character played by Alan Rickman in Die Hard.)

This harmonizes with the Ram Dass quote from a few weeks ago, that when you read someone’s stuff, it’s actually about them and their issues even if it purports to address you and yours. Whether it’s a novel or a book of practical advice—it’s autobiography in cipher. Encrypted confession.

The more writing I do—and guys, I’ve been doing far too much of it—the more convinced I become that the worthwhile words we string together are the ones we choose without much forethought. Writing isn’t a planned act; it’s much too complicated, like running. Consciously planning each stride, you’re going to end up scraping yourself off the asphalt. Save your thinking for revision.

In a piece from a few years back about overthinking in The Economist, Ian Leslie discusses Roger Federer’s then-ongoing slump:

In the jargon of sport, [Federer] has been “choking”. This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed.

There’s an intellectual grace, too. Also fragile as hell. Writers fluff the putt constantly. Whether we’re consciously aware of it as we read, we can all tell when a writer is tapped into that grace or when they’re choking.

It’s hard to edit around the latter. You can polish a rough gemstone, but if there’s no magic in a batch of words, better to excise the problem than try to rework it. Frequently, it doesn’t even need to be replaced. Maybe we choked because deep down we knew this didn’t need to be said in the first place.

When we’re tapped in as we write, we’re letting something honest loose. This makes our work autobiographical, no matter how pragmatic our purpose. Can a memo be memoir? If it’s going to be worthwhile, it must be.

Leslie recommends “unthinking,” which he defines as “the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.” Easier said, as they say, but as a general rule of thumb, I do this: when I find myself stuck trying to find the right word or phrasing, I reset, write it the “wrong way,” and move on. On the next pass, I discover the wrong way works well. When it doesn’t, the right way presents itself almost immediately.

Overthinking is vanity. I’m going to make this better than the words that are coming to mind right now. Nope. Writing too much has taught me that I’m not all that clever. Easier to just bull my way through like Kool-Aid Man. Oh YEAH!

(A footnote on parallel universes: don’t pretend Gerhard Richter wasn’t the bad guy’s name in Die Hard. It doesn’t count if you had to check Wikipedia to prove it was actually Hans Gruber. He was only Hans Gruber in our universe. The character’s name was Gerhard Richter in the same parallel universe where they’re called Berenstein Bears and Sinbad starred in a genie movie called Shazaam.)

(A footnote on the belief in parallel universes: I didn’t believe either—until 2016. Now, I’m pretty sure we’re all living in the darkest timeline. Personally, I’ve decided to have fun with it.)

tonics and bromides

As a kid, I thought tonic water was just a weird-tasting soda my grandparents liked to drink. I had no idea it was medicine. Originally, people drank tonic water to ward off malaria. The gin was optional—in theory.

Tonic water contains quinine, a bitter extract of cinchona tree bark that can be effective against the malaria parasite. Today’s mixer no longer contains an effective dose—we’ve left only a trace amount to balance the sweetness of a gin and tonic.

“Tonic,” meaning something medicinal that gives a feeling of vigor and well-being, is an older usage. Think miracle elixirs, snake oil. The word comes from the Greek tonikos, meaning “for stretching,” and ties to our use of the word to describe healthy muscle tone.

If you’ve ever read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, you’ll know that one of Ayn Rand’s favorite words is “bromide.” A bromide is a compound containing bromine. In the 19th century, doctors used bromine salts like potassium bromide for their calming effect on patients. Later, a humorist coined Rand’s preferred usage: Bromides were boring people and the bland, boring things they said—trite platitudes, clichés. In other words, verbal sedatives.

Tonics and bromides. The things authors say to give readers a “feeling of vigor,”—just the feeling, mind you—and the things they say to reassure us without saying anything real at all. Half the damn internet today, tonics and bromides!

My own writing is littered with them. So is yours. They end up all over the page the minute you start typing, like glitter. The purpose of editing is to painstakingly remove them to the extent that your deadline and your word count allow.