“Write drunk, edit sober.”

Hemingway didn’t say it, though this quote is often attributed to him. And, to be sure, it’s bad advice. Have you ever tried to write while drunk? I have and, I’ll tell you, the output was no bueno. It was a jumbled mess of half-thoughts and homonyms which no amount of editing could salvage.

But, like many quotes real or fake, there is a lot of truth in this brief, four-word sentiment. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with intoxication. It’s about the merits of uninhibited creativity. Writing drunk, to me, means letting your mind wander, letting your thoughts be your thoughts and getting them out without judging them. Writing drunk means writing freely and not worrying about getting anything right.  (more…)

Life can be crazy in our house. With four children of ages from newborn to teenager, a busy professional life and a bustling social calendar, it can seem like I am constantly going from place to place, dropping off, picking up, checking off boxes on a seemingly never-ending list of to-dos.

If you have a family, chances are pretty good that you know the feeling. Everything begins to swirl together to the point where days fade from pre-dawn alarm clocks to falling into bed without much having been accomplished and, yet, a million things being done. Modern life is a constant uphill struggle to keep up and trying to keep your head above water, deliver on commitments and get through the days leaves precious little time to reflect or look forward. (more…)

Adam is one of my closest friends. We don’t live near one another – he’s on the West Coast, I’m in the Midwest. We don’t see each other often – the last time was before Game 3 of the 2014 World Series (#weareGiant). We don’t speak regularly, but when we do, it’s as if no time has passed at all.

Adam bought and edited my book, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things. It was a very personal book and the relationship between writer and editor can often be very intimate. Lucky for me, we hit it off well and have remained close long after the book has disappeared from the clearance bin.

About 18 months ago Adam, a born and bred New Yorker, got married, left publishing and moved to the other side of the country. He was run down by the rat race. He was tired and cynical. He needed a change. And for the last year or so, he’s been fully embracing the Northern California life. He teaches karate – a lifelong passion – in Marin. He does freelance editing work. He’s found a bit of sunshine in his life.

Adam called me last night to talk. He needed some advice and, after more than an hour of the kind of catching up that happens in friendships like ours, he asked me what he should do for a living. His wife – vastly smarter, more talented and better looking than he – is a foreign rights editor and is very successful. Its been a benefit to his restoration, but now he wants to find his thing, to contribute to the family larder more consistently and take ownership of his work.

There’s just one problem.

“If you look at my resume, I’ve spent my whole life in publishing,” he says. From his perspective, it’s a liability. A decade and a half in one industry, a very specific industry, an incestuous industry where people are born, grow and die. He’s afraid the only thing he’s qualified to do is work in publishing.

I asked him about writing. Adam is a great writer, has a degree in journalism and has an innate sense of story that leaves me jealous. He said he’s started a bunch of proposals, but finds holes in them. He’s started a lot of things, but his deep knowledge stops him short.

Adam, it seems, knows too much.

I think we all do this. We all, at some time or another, pen ourselves in by expectations, perceptions and the kind of thinking that leaves you focused on all the reasons something won’t work instead of finding the reasons it will. I certainly think this way. I’m the kind of person that sits down to do something and am already envisioning two paths – one that leads to glory and success, the other to necessary and inevitable failure.

But I’ve learned a couple of things from very smart, successful people that have helped me tame my self-doubting beast and calmed me down considerably.

The first is the Really-Really. The really-really is a way of looking at a situation and deconstructing it to its component parts; of reframing an experience or opportunity around a sort of base definition. Take Adam’s resume for instance. He looks at it and sees nothing but publishing. If he were to take the really-really approach to it, he would break down the publishing into its component activities and redefine it through that lens. He sees ‘editor’ and believes it to be limiting. The really-really would define what an editor does: project management, contract negotiation, story design, production design, financial forecasting, industry and retail strategy.

When you break down something with the really-really, you see it not for what you think it is, but what it actually is. I do this with clients all the time. They come in saying they have a certain challenge, but when we spend time breaking it down with the really-really, a different, more manageable challenge often comes to light.

The second thing that has helped me is the practice of Selective Naivete. This is all about removing the long-term, two path thinking that people experienced in one area tend to do and instead reframing something in smaller steps. Take Adam’s writing for example. He sits down to write a book proposal and immediately sees all the reasons it won’t work. If he were to practice selective naivete, he would put his best ideas into a proposal and ask someone else how they could see it working. New-agers and self-helpers call these limiting believes, this notion that we stop ourselves from doing something before we even try. I like to think of it as a shift in perspective – from ‘why I can’t’ do something to asking someone ‘do you think I could.’

If I had known more about book publishing before I began working on the project Adam eventually bought, I would never have written it. A memoir about hunting in a divisive gun culture written by a suburban white man doesn’t exactly jibe with industry trends. But I didn’t, so I pursued the project based upon a hunch and my own desire. I asked questions. I asked for input. I didn’t allow my own doubts to get in the way because I didn’t have them. It can be very difficult, but choosing to ignore doubts and instead ask questions and respond to feedback is at the core of practicing selective naivete.

Time will tell which path Adam goes down. You may even see his byline on some posts on this site. My hope is that he figures out how to get out of his own way, reframe his experiences and allow his curiosity and instinct to overcome his vast knowledge. The world will be better with more of him in it and I truly believe, he will be happier for it.

 

 

 

The last couple of days, I’ve been writing about work. I’ve written about how sprints help me do my best creative work and about the meditative benefits of more process-oriented tasks, which got me thinking about the way I work and the rituals I find myself going through in preparation and execution.

Writers are creatures of ritual. From the (most likely apocryphal) standing ritual of Hemingway to Elmore Leonard’s long-handed scrawl on legal paper, it seems like every famous writer has an equally famous ritual. Why are writers so closely associated with ritual? Well, it probably has to do more with the solitary aspirations of would-be writers than of the writers themselves. But people who put words together for public consumption are by no means the only ones. Pick up almost any business culture magazine – Fast Company, Inc., whatever – you’ll find article after article on productivity highlighting the work rituals and habits of successful people.

I have discovered my rituals by observation, not design. I never set out to plan the way I work, but I do tend to do the same things over and over, especially when it comes to writing. There’s nothing magical about them, but all the recent thinking about work got me to notice things in a new way. Here’s a list of some of my rituals.

  1. Laptop, not pen. I write my daily journal long-hand with a fountain pen. I like a medium nib, something heavy. And I like non-ruled notebook paper. When I write, I do it on a laptop, never the desktop down in the basement. I like the idea of being able to move around, even if I never do. I write in Apple’s Pages, but back things up to Evernote. There’s just something about Word… it brings back memories of past stress.
  2. Coffee to my right. It doesn’t matter the time of day – early morning or late at night – when I sit down to write there is always a fresh cup of coffee about five inches from my right pinky. No real rhyme or reason here, just habit. Every time I put the coffee down on the left, it feels misplaces. The coffee can be from anywhere – home, the office, Starbucks or a gas station (I’ve drank a lot of gas station coffee). I may not even drink it, just the odd couple of sips. But it is always – and I mean always – there.
  3. Music directly in my ears. I wear a pair of earbuds because I won’t notice the weight. I listen to the same albums over and over. Every book, every article, every blog post or white paper, it’s one of three albums: Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” Bon Iver’s “Bon Iver” or Andrew Bird’s “Armchair Apocrypha.” Not only are they my favorite albums, I have listened to them so many times I can ignore them. Plus, I’ve listened to them enough that I fall into the rhythms of the songs. I need noise when I’m writing. Silence makes my mind wander. I also need focused noise. I’ve tried listening through speakers, no dice. Ambient noise isn’t predictable enough. I need regular noise.
  4. First sentences first. Sounds obvious, but my early training as a newspaper reporter ingrained in me a need for a solid lede. If I have a first sentence in my head, everything else just flows. If I only have an idea instead of an articulated beginning, I’m all over the place. I need a first sentence. It’s the basis for all that follows. I spent more than a year researching my first book and tried writing as I went along. It wasn’t until that first sentence solidified that I could really get to work. It sets the tone, focuses the perspective. It’s vital. The first sentence of that book about Oliver Hazard Perry and the War of 1812? “I should have rented the golf cart.” Yeah, what follows from that is pretty true to that first idea.
  5. Lean in. When I’m writing and writing well, I’m hunched over the keys. I’m at the front of the chair, feet crossed below me, elbows leaning on the desk. I’m as into it as I hope the reader will be when they sit down.
  6. Notebook and pen nearby. Never used, but I like having them there just in case.
  7. No research. I know a lot of writers who research as they write. They listen to interviews, reference written materials, check notes. I can’t do it. It all has to be done ahead of time. I am a  creature of habitual groove. I have all the research in my head when I sit down to write, I’ve memorized the quotes, I know the facts. If I get tripped up, it’s time to stop writing and do more homework. I can always check things when I’m done.
  8. No editing on the fly. I don’t edit when I write. I write. I don’t go back and read what I’ve written the day I’ve written it. I might fix a typo or fill in a missed word, but, for me, writing is a head-down run up the middle. No time or sense in looking back until the play is over.
  9. No talking. When I’m writing, I need focus. It’s reason I write in sprints. Don’t talk to me, I’ll probably ignore you. If I’m lost in my mind – as I need to be in order to write – I become oblivious to the outside world. I don’t mean to be a dick, but if I do stop to talk to you, I’m done. The folks at work laugh about this. They joke that they can tell when I’m in the office in body only. They’re right. I can’t help it. It’s just the way my brain works. When I’ve finished a thought, I’m more than happy to chat with you. I love people. But if I’ve stopped in mid-flow, I’m done and I feel like a failure for the rest of the day.

That’s about it. I don’t have many rituals, but these are things I find myself doing or needing when I write. Do you have habits? I’d love to know. But, please, spare me the Hemingway story. If he did write standing up, it was probably just because the room would start spinning if he sat down.

I’ve been traveling a lot for work over the last 18 months – enough that I now select my preferred seats on nearly every aircraft in the Delta Airlines fleet when I book my flights; enough that I can speak the secret language of gate agents; enough that I have a standard format for my packing list; enough that when I go more than a couple of weeks without going somewhere, I feel a little lost.

And, at first, it was all very exciting. Coming from a background of covering local news for newspapers and magazines – where a ‘big’ trip would still have me home for dinner – the idea of getting paid to get on a plane and go someplace else was thrilling. (more…)