Robert A. Caro's book Working

I’m fascinated by glimpses into writers’ processes and motivations. Here are a few quotes from Robert Caro’s book, first about the importance he places on good writing:

Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do. (p. 192)

How he outlines a book:

I can’t start writing a book until I’ve thought it through and can see it whole in my mind. So before I start writing, I boil the book down to three paragraphs, or two, or one - that’s when it comes into view. That process might take weeks. And then I turn those paragraphs into an outline of the whole book. That’s what you see up here on my wall now - twenty-seven typewritten pages. That’s the fifth volume. Then, with the whole book in mind, I go chapter by chapter. I sit down at the typewriter and type an outline of that chapter, let’s say if it’s a long chapter, seven pages - it’s really the chapter in brief, without any of the supporting evidence. Then, each chapter gets a notebook, which I fill with all the materials I want to use - quotations and facts pulled from all of the research I’ve done. (p. 197)

How he does research:

First you read the books on the subject, then you go to the big newspapers, and all the magazines (…), then you go to the newspapers from the little towns. (…)

Then the next thing you do is the documents. (…)

Then come the interviews. You try and find everybody who is alive who dealt [with the subject] in any way in this period. Some people you interview over and over. (p. 194-5)

How he thinks of people:

You try to learn as much about the people as you can. I try never to give psychohistory… It’s as hard to understand someone you’re writing about as it is to understand someone in real life, but there are a lot of objective facts about their lives and actions, and the more of them you learn, the closer you come to whatever understanding is possible. (p. 201)

Finally, what motivates his research:

It had to do with that something in me, that something in my nature, which, as I said earlier, wasn’t a quality I could be proud of or could take credit for. It wasn’t something that, as I missed yet another deadline by months or years, I could take the blame for, either. It was just part of me, like it or not; the part of me that had hated writing an article for Newsday while I still had questions - or even a question - left to ask; the part of me that, now that I was writing books, kept leading me, after I had gotten every question answered, to suddenly think, despite myself, of new questions that, in the instant of thinking them, I felt must be answered for my book to be complete; the part of me that kept leading me to think of new avenues of research that, even as I thought of them, I felt it was crucial to head down. It wasn’t something about which, I had learned the hard way, I had a choice; in reality I had no choice at all. In my defence: while I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts - through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing - can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time. But that’s a logical way of justifying that quality in me. (p. 112)

This idea of duty

Longform podcast recently interviews cartoonist Liana Finck. About 35 minutes in to the interview, Liana said:

“I didn’t want to redo things a million times. It’s a sin I think.”

She draws really fast as “a way to combat the perfectionism.” But the interviewer returns to the idea of sin and Liana elaborates:

“It’s the same as circular thinking. It’s the same as worrying that you’re fat and not being able to live your life because all you can think is ‘I’m fat. I can’t talk to my friend because I’m fat. I can’t apply for a job because I’m fat.’ It’s this very very minor thing that’s not even like a bad thing that’s just getting in the way of you being a person. It’s kind of in a way incapacitating yourself so that you don’t contribute to the world at all, and I think it’s a way certain people are kept down. And if you indulge in it, you’re collaborating with the people who want to keep you down, or the forces that want to keep you down. (…) Whether it is good enough or not, it’s so unfair that the most sensitive and vulnerable people are the ones who censor themselves the most and it means that all the work we see is by confident people and confident people aren’t better people than sensitive people. So it’s our duty not to censor ourselves so much.”

Liana Finck’s words are gentle, really. I suspect they are the words addressed to people, who like her, are very sensitive. They remind me of a Steven Pressfield quote from The War of Art:

Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action. 

Do it or don't do it.

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God. 

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.

On a writing habit

In a letter dated September 22, 1957 Flannery O’Connor wrote:

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.

How to read

In The Business of Being a Writer, Jane Friedman’s first chapter discusses “the gap”, the idea that a writer’s taste and a writer’s writing don’t necessarily match up in the first years. She writes “if you can’t perceive the gap (…) you probably aren’t reading enough. Writers can develop good taste and understand what quality work is by reading writers they admire and want to emulate.” (page 12)

There are lots of ideas and recommendations for what to read, including Francine Prose’s list. However, the attitude with which you can approach reading is also interesting. Mavis Gallant recommends reading what you love, what interests you. 

I think if you’re a writer, you’re going to write. What you have to do when you’re young is read a lot. And if the young person says to me, read what? I realize it’s a hopeless case. ‘Cause if you haven’t figured out what you’re going to read… You have to read your contemporaries first. Don’t read what you don’t like! Do not read what bores you! Don’t read anything that’s going to stultify you, that you have to drive yourself to read one more page. Forget it. Even if it’s a good reputation, it’s a wonderful writer, don’t do it! It’s not going to help you in any way. Read what you like, read what stimulates you, what interests you, that other world that is fiction. Get into it! (From documentary Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant” at 40 minutes 30 seconds.)

Others, like Pamela Paul, argue you should read books that challenge you, and finish them, even if you hate them. Her article in the New York Times (April 15, 2017) begins:

Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page. (…)

This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.

Why does she recommend doing this? Because, she writes, “it helps you refine what you value” because, “you may find yourself developing a point of view” because, “you come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.”

Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life, writes something similar: 

… we should be reading for a particular reason: not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what Ruskin felt, but because, to repeat with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt.’ We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.

Recently Austin Kleon praised the art of marginalia. Me? I take notes!

Feeling the burn

I think blogging is hard because I’m shy and self-conscious. Acknowledging that and recognizing that it’s normal is consoling, and to that effect, I liked this post on titled “The Art of Enjoying the Burn” via SwissMiss.

There seems to be an equivalent "burn" with all forms of personal boundary-pushing, a tension or discomfort that comes with all attempts to reach higher-hanging fruit. (…) Creative work entails the burn of completing mediocre pieces of work, and showing them to people. (…) In every endeavor that isn’t already easy for you, progress requires you to move into certain uncomfortable feelings with regularity. So it makes sense, if you can, to interpret those feelings as good, rewarding, and reassuring – even though they aren’t, in and of themselves, pleasant.

Charlotte Brontë's writing habits

It's so fascinating to read and compare published author's habits and routines. The following quotations come from Elizabeth Gaskell's book: The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

She said that it was not every day that she could write. Sometimes weeks or even months elapsed before she felt that she had anything to add to that portion of her story which was already written. Then some morning, she would waken up, and the progress of her tale lay clear and bright before her, in distinct vision. When this was the case, all her care was to discharge her household and filial duties, so as to obtain leisure to sit down and write out the incidents and consequent thoughts, which were, in fact, more present to her mind at such times than her actual life itself. (p 233)

Anyone who has studied her writings, - whether in print or in her letters; anyone who has enjoyed the rare privilege of listening to her talk, must have noticed her singular felicity in the choice of words. She herself, in writing her books, was solicitous on this point. One set of words was the truthful mirror of her thoughts; no others, however apparently identical in meaning, would do. She had that strong practical regard for the simple holy truth of expression, which Mr Trench has enforced as a duty too often neglected. She would wait patiently searching for the right term, until it presented itself to her. It might be provincial, it might be derived from the Latin; so that it accurately represented her idea, she did not mind whence it came; but this care makes her style present the finish of a pice of mosaic. Each component part, however small, has been dropped into the right place. She never wrote down a sentence until she clearly understood what she wanted to say, had deliberately chosen the words, and arranged them in their right order. Hence it comes that, in the craps of paper covered with her pencil writing which I have seen, there will occasionally be a sentence scored out, but seldom, if ever, a word or an expression. She wrote on these bits of paper in a minute hand, holding each against a piece of board, such as is used in binding books, for a desk. This plan was necessary for one so short-sighted as she was, and, besides, it enabled her to use pencil and paper, as she sat near the fire in the twilight hours, or if (as was too often the case) she was wakeful for hours in the night. Her finished manuscripts were copied from these pencil scraps, in clear, legible, delicate traced writing, almost as easy to read as print. (p 234)


I really like what Alain de Botton writes about clichés in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life:

"The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. (…) So if speaking in clichés is problematic, it is because the world itself contains a far broader range of rainfalls, moons, sunshines, and emotions than stock expressions either capture or teach us to expect." (pages 88 and 97)

Today I also enjoyed reading this: "How Do We Write Now?" by Patricia Lockwood at Tin House.

Writing endures

In a recent interview on Longform, here's what Craig Mod had to say about writing. It's a transcription from the podcast, but I would encourage you to listen to the episode, around 45 minutes in. 

The reason why I’m still writing, in part it’s just because I feel like that’s, for me it’s important to do that. I’ve looked at all the stuff I’ve worked on and the thing that has, if you want to make it really evidence-based, it’s like the things that I’ve worked on that have had the most interesting returns, talk like a finance engineer or something, the greatest long-term dividend payouts have been from writing. Like the most interesting people in my life I’ve connected through because of writing, the most interesting adventures I’ve gone on have been because of writing, more than the apps I’ve built, more than the websites I’ve put together. Which is weird in hindsight, looking back on it. I wouldn’t have expected that. But, uh, I think it just speaks to the fact that a condensed, well-formed piece of text has a tremendous amount of power still today, you know, in that all of writing for me is about conversation starting, how do we engage, how do I help people step up to a higher level for us to have a conversation together about something that’s exciting to me in the moment.


I am filled with restlessness. I feel like every quote on the subject applies to me and I look around to find a source and heap it with blame. Maybe it's the cold slow spring, maybe it's the equal parts charm and challenge of being home with my pre-school boys, maybe it's the projects I've engaged in their dull three-quarters phase. 

I do believe that the only solution is to do the work. When I feel discouraged, I read an encouraging thing, like this numbered writing advice from A List Apart, by Mark Bernstein.

Writing tip: Billy Collins

In the spirit of spring cleaning, here's a fun poem by Billy Collins. (Via)


Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.

Writing tip: Keep a diary

This writing tip comes from David Sedaris' book Theft by Finding. Three quotes apply to the subject of keeping a diary:

When it comes to subject matter, all diarists are different. I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren't that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change. Other people's feelings, though, that was a different story. Got a bone to pick with your stepmother or the manager of the place where you worked until yesterday? Please, let's talk!
If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you're interested in. (p. 3)

In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it. (p. 9)

After coming home, I listened to the radio and cleaned up a little. A woman on All Things Considered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and mentioned the importance of keeping a diary. It was valuable, she said, because after a while you'd stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts. (p. 94)

Writing tip: Eileen Myers

This week’s writing tip comes from the Happier in Holywood podcast, episode 25. In the course of an interview with Eileen Myers the hosts Sarah and Liz hone in on procrastination. “Why do you think you procrastinate?” they ask Eileen. Eileen answers, “I think procrastination comes down to two things for me and it’s either fear or resentment.” She explains that fear came in the beginning of her career when she wanted her writing to be great (“and if you want something to be great that is the fastest ticket to not doing anything…”). With time, Eileen decided to identify what she wanted from writing and discovered that she wanted the feeling of “the process is gratifying to me.” She describes this as “the idea came to me and it’s my job to pursue it and see it through”. Resentment, she explains, came later in her writing career as she received feedback on what she wrote and had to deal with its negative aspects.

If you want to hear how she deals with it, check out the podcast!

Writing tip: Jenna Fischer

This week’s writing tip comes from Episode 27 of the Happier in Hollywood Podcast. The podcast hosts, Elizabeth and Sarah interview Jenna Fischer about her book The Actor's Life: A Survival Guide. Fifteen minutes into the podcast, Jenna Fischer says: “create a consistent body of work”. It’s about building your reputation, about showing up, about practice. Her advice: you can't control opportunity but you can control your readiness, you can always be getting better. Finish what you start!

So that’s this week’s dose of encouragement. Go write!

Writing tip: Observation and courage

I received The New York Times Book of the Dead as a gift and plunged into its "literary world" section to find this week's tip. This tip is courtesy of Robert Frost who lived from 1874-1963. Here are two quotes from his obituary:

"I don't like to write anything I don't see." (The obituary remarks: "Thus he recorded timelessly how the swimming buck pushed the 'crumpled' water; how the wagon's wheels 'freshly sliced' the April mire; how the ice crystals from the frozen birch snapped off and went 'avalanching' on the snowy crust.")

"Explaining why he invited Mr. Frost to speak at his inauguration, President Kennedy said, 'I think politicians and poets share at least one thing, and that is their greatness depends upon the courage with which they face the challenges of life.'"

Writing tip: Stephen King

Next week it's Christmas! I'm always reminded of something Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing:

I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie. I told them that because if you agree to an interview you have to say something, and it plays better if it’s something at least half-clever. Also, I didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb (just a workaholic, I guess). The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddam birthday anyway). And when I’m not working, I’m not working at all, although during those periods of full stop I usually feel at loose ends with myself and have trouble sleeping.

Writing tip: Bernard Malamud

This week's writing tip comes from Bernard Malamud in the excellent book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. About Malamud, Currey writes the following:

The novelist and short-story writer was, in the words of his biographer, Philip Davis, a "time-hunted man." Malamud's daughter remembers him being "absolutely, compulsively prompt" throughout his life. (...) This obsessive punctuality served him well as a writer. (...) Malamud always found time to write and apparently never lacked for discipline. "Discipline is an ideal for the self," he once said. "If you have to discipline yourself to achieve art, you discipline yourself."

"Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you."

Writing tip by Kenneth Atchity

This week's writing tip comes from Kenneth Atchity's book, A Writer's Time, p. 58:

Constantly extending a deadline is a symptom of a dangerous syndrome: perfectionism and a lack of self-confidence. If you're afraid to stop working on a manuscript, remember that no book, however long the time producing it, will be perfect. Strive instead to perfect the way you spend your writing time.

Writing tip: Phil Toledano

This week’s writing tip comes from the photographer Phil Toledano who, talking about art for Vogue Italia, said “…more importantly that work made me realize that I could have a dialogue with myself and I could figure stuff out for myself through art and it was kind of an amazing experience…”

This is a recurring theme in art. Augustine of Hippo, who died centuries ago, expresses something similar: “I must confess that, personally, I have learned many things I never knew before… just by writing.”