And let it alllllll hang out.
I was a Type A person with perfectionist tendencies and about to do the work my entire career had been in service of: the writing of my first book. …
The silence of good intentions.
Last week, the liberal Bill Maher went after his own in one of the best political commentaries I’ve seen. Maher asked why more of the country didn’t vote for Congressional Democrats or liberal politicians in state races when Trump and his Ever-Trumpers were the alternative. Democrats lost seats in the U.S. House, didn’t turn a single state legislature, and may not take the U.S. Senate. “If Cracker Jack were made of popcorn and dog shit,” Maher joked, “and half the people threw out popcorn…popcorn should want to know why.”
For Maher, and for me, the answer lies in hyperventilating liberals online and in popular culture. Maher lays out his case so I won’t repeat it, but will say I’m alarmed by the censorious Woke around me and what today’s ultra-liberal movement might mean for the future of writing and journalism. …
The power that comes from meeting ridiculously modest goals
I finished the first draft of a screenplay last week. It’s the fourth one I’ve written in three years, and I’ve written all of them in the hours when I’ve not been writing a book, or writing here, or on my blog, or for other websites or magazines.
I’m not super-human. I don’t even consider myself prodigious. My trick, if I have one, is to set ridiculously modest goals for my output and then meet them every day.
Before I wrote my last book I thought about how I would pace myself. I had a full-time job and a large family and a taste for good Scotch. I didn’t want to give up my life for the book. So I studied other writers, when they wrote but also how much each day. I liked Graham Greene’s model for output: 500 words a day, five or six days a week. (Greene lightly fictionalized his approach in The End of the Affair, the audio version of which Colin Firth narrates. …
They follow a rule which anyone writing for a living must learn.
Great writers get to where they are—gaining an audience and book deals and money—by learning one simple rule. They write how they talk.
There that’s the secret; you can quit reading.
Or you can know there are some provisos to writing how you talk.
First, you must have a voice worth listening to. Anyone can blabber online, which means anyone will. To separate yourself from the specious self-indulged crap you must have ideas worth sharing. You must read widely.
Ah, but reading widely creates more provisos and as many problems as it solves. The more you read, especially the more a young writer does, the more you’re overwhelmed by the great writers who’ve come before and the less worthy you feel of sharing a thought that’s your own. …
The solution doesn’t require a constitutional amendment
Last week the New York Times’ Farhad Majoo wrote a column saying he’s voted in every election since 2000 and, as a Californian, “not once do I remember a presidential candidate ever making an effort to get my vote.” Thank the Electoral College, the system by which Americans elect their president and by which candidates from both parties see California as blue enough, or Texas as red enough, to ignore them on the campaign trail, which means their concerns are ignored in the Oval Office, too. I won’t detail the machinations of the Electoral College here. I assume you know them. …
The best advice I ever got on how to tell a story well
Years ago I read a book by Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map, which is the story of a cholera outbreak in Victorian London that led, among other things, to the development of the modern sewage system. It’s a great book. When I finished it, I googled Johnson’s work to see what else he’d written and came across this essay, about, coincidentally, how he structured The Ghost Map.
The essay had a profound impact on my writing life. I’m betting it’ll have the same on yours.
Johnson wrote how good writing and great reporting only take you so far. If you don’t present your story well — think through the sequences and narrative arcs, outline them even — no one will read it. Johnson calls this thinking and planning Deep Structure, and it’s best to let him explain things from here. …
John Lewis overcame his worst fear at a prison in Mississippi—a lesson for how we all can thrive by confronting that which terrifies us.
In the summer of 1961, at a Greyhound bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, John Lewis took a sip of water from a whites-only fountain. He did it intentionally. He was only 21 but already a leader in the Civil Rights movement, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and a key organizer in that summer’s Freedom Rides. …
The simple literary technique that’s changed my writing life—and will change yours, too.
Decades ago, when I started out as a magazine writer, I wanted to understand why I liked certain stories. I wanted to understand not only why they worked but how they worked. I spent hours reading and re-reading my favorite pieces and saw some of them used a literary technique common to the best novelists and authors. The technique was super powerful. I liked it so much I began to implement it myself.
It’s called The Nested Doll.
The Nested Doll is basically how a writer takes an anecdote from the past and embeds it within a present-day and forward-moving narrative. It’s easier to show this than tell it so let’s find an example. …
For as long as I’ve been a writer—and even before that, when I was just a reader—I’ve been obsessed with sentences. Their rhythms and intonations, those sounds they make in your inner ear, as well as that strange quality of reading them at time-and-a-half speed when under the sway of a great stylist. I am a sucker for great stylists. A beautiful sentence is in my opinion as much an achievement as a beautifully crafted story. Each requires courage and almost endless revisions.
I’ve spent probably too much time studying great stylists and would like to share one technique I’ve learned from perhaps my favorite voice-y writer, Clive James, the Australian polymath whose collection of essays, Cultural Amnesia, is the LONE book that never leaves my nightstand. …
One of my favorite newsletters is The Interpreter, written by New York Times correspondents Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who contextualize world events. And in last week’s newsletter, The Interpreter opened with a photo of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s now-infamous Supreme Court nomination ceremony. Coney Barrett is sitting for White House photographers with her family.
Borrowing a question first posed by Georgetown University political scientist Don Moynihan, The Interpreter asked readers: “What do you think when you see this picture?”
Here are the responses: