I recently talked with Malcolm Gladwell about Miracle and Wonder, his new audiobook of conversations with musician Paul Simon. (You can watch our discussion here.) The book is essentially Gladwell coaxing Simon to talk through his own creative process and evolution as an artist. Since that chat, I’ve been thinking about my own process.
One of the many lessons I learned in writing two books is that books still have a certain mystique, and people are as curious about writing in general as they are about the content of a book. (At least my content, anyway;) And I count myself among those people.
When I was a teenager, I worked as a golf caddie. (I was not good; this is how I learned I needed glasses.) It was interesting to accompany amateur golfers when, once in a rare while, they hit a shot befitting a pro. When that happened, they might turn to me and explain what they’d just done differently, and how they had finally figured this thing out. And then two shots later I’d be hacking through the woods looking for their ball. They had not, apparently, figured the thing out. But they had hit one great shot!
I feel like that about writing much of the time. I’ll write a sentence I really like, and then a paragraph later I’m hacking through the metaphorical woods wondering how I ever thought I knew what I was doing. I think, as with those golfers, that’s part of what makes it addictive — glimpses of understanding, mixed with perpetual challenge.
In the aftermath of each of my two books, I came down with the extreme version of “I’m a fluke” syndrome. As in, I’d flip to a page of my own book that I liked, read it, and immediately think: “Too bad I have now forgotten how to write and could never do that again.”
Once, before an interview where I was to be asked about my writing process, I panicked a little trying to think about whether I had a process. So I asked my wife how I wrote the book (my first one, in that case), to which she replied: “You went upstairs and came back down two years later.” True, but not quite what I was looking for.
For my second book, I paid more attention to my own process. I most certainly don’t have a strict method — I think the process needs to adapt to the task — but I did recognize some recurring strategies the second time around.
I see a lot of rules of writing proffered online. Sometimes I find them interesting, other times ridiculous. I don’t have rules or classes to offer. I’m still eagerly learning about writing; what I can offer is to share insights that help me, and that might help you.
Rather than codifying procedures, my own learning process has felt more like what famed investor Charlie Munger described as collecting “mental models”; basically, I accumulate tools and try to match them to the task. I think professional writers accumulate these tools in part by paying attention to the structure of things they read, watch, and listen to.
So, starting now, I’m going to add something new to Range Widely’s usual repertoire of research analysis, human performance discussion, and Russian writers and Fraggle Rock. Maybe once a month or so, I’ll share something I’ve read and point out choices that the creator made.
I hope I can add to your own collection of mental models for how to structure and present information or stories in your own life or work.
Here, for example, is a mental model that helped me:
How Film Editing Helped My Writing
A bunch of years ago, a friend asked for my help editing a film.
I knew zero about film editing, so he certainly didn’t need my input. Rather, he had a repetitive stress injury from nonstop editing, and what he wanted was to talk me through the process, and have me do the execution. Basically, he would be the brain and I the motor skills. This sounded boring; it turned out to be a bit of a revelation. (Hi Jeff Novich, not sure I ever told you this.)
The process went like this: Jeff compiled all this disparate footage; then he talked me through cutting it up into little chunks to save. Everything that wasn’t in a selected chunk hit the cutting room floor. Now we had a collection of discrete chunks, and most of the ballgame from there was figuring out how to order the chunks to give a feeling of escalating engagement with and understanding of the topic.
Every “out point” of one chunk (i.e. a fadeout or other transition) had to lead to the “in point” of the subsequent chunk. Jeff had me shuffling around chunks to try different orders. It really got me thinking about how the sequence of information impacts the degree of clarity and drama.
At the time, I was trying to write a long piece about sudden cardiac death in athletes. That topic was my original reason for getting into journalism, after a friend and training partner died at the end of a mile race. (He's included in the article that eventually came out of that work.) I had been learning about sudden cardiac death for several years, and I was utterly overwhelmed with information.
The film editing experience gave me a new frame. I thought of all the information that I’d collected (like scenes and interviews) as video. First, I needed to identify the most interesting and clarifying chunks and leave the rest on the cutting room floor. Then I needed to arrange those chunks so that one “out point” (a line space between article sections, in my case) ended on a note that carried the reader to the next “in point” — like bringing them back from a fadeout or commercial break.
That frame was immensely helpful in forcing the article out of my muddled head and onto the page. It gave me a comprehensible way to start, and something productive to do rather than trying to conceive an entire story in my head at once. I still sometimes use the film editing analogy when structuring my own writing, using the ends of sections and chapters like those filmic out points.
I plan to make posts on writing, creative process, or narrative structure a regular topic. And because naming things is fun, let me know below if you have a suggestion for naming this recurring feature. I appreciate all suggestions, and if I adopt yours, I’ll send a signed book as a small thank you, if you’d like one.