Writing a great draft (by crucifying my darlings)

What do the people below have in common?


John McCain

Jk rowling



Dalai Lama

In other words: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John McCain, J.K. Rowling, Hercules, Bertrand Russell and the Dalai Lama.

Answer: They are people whose “lives” or stories I have cut from the second draft of my book manuscript.

Now, I am entirely aware that seeing these people on the same list is bizarre to begin with. What could they possibly have done in the same book–my book-in the first place? Why would I cut them out now? And who might be left?

I’m not at liberty to answer these questions right now, but I will say this:

Good writing and editing is in part about “crucifying your darlings,” as Ed Carr, one of my editors at The Economist, once said to me. And I have decided–boldly and without regret–that my book will be better with fewer lives.

Less is more, in other words. The total word count has stayed the same, but I have gone much deeper into the characters I have chosen, and have done a much better job weaving them together into precisely the narrative about success and failure that I am trying to produce.

I am very happy with the story that’s emerging. This, to me, is the fun part. How absurd that must sound to everybody else.

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Thank God JK Rowling was too shy to ask for a pen

As I’ve hinted, J.K. Rowling is one of the many people whose lives I’m studying for my book, because of the impostor-like way that failure turned into success for her. But I just came across a fascinating tidbit from her that concerns the process of imagining and thus writing.

As most of her fans know (it may shock you, by the way, that I myself have not yet read any Harry Potter books), she had the idea for Harry Potter on a train ride from Manchester to London in 1990. We’ve all had good ideas from time to time, so let’s see what happened next. From her online autobiography:

To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a functioning pen with me, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one. I think, now, that this was probably a good thing, because I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me. I think that perhaps if I had had to slow down the ideas so that I could capture them on paper I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen).

This sort of thing has long fascinated me. At the beginning of my journalism career, I was always really anxious about note-taking, especially of direct quotes, and constantly afraid that I might miss something good or transcribe it wrong. I even tried to teach myself short-hand to be quicker.

But over the years, I’ve learned to relax and take fewer notes, whose purpose is now mainly to nudge my memory back to the actual scene. I’ve discovered that the more I relax during interviews or experiences, the more I observe and remember later. And as I’m writing my book, I’ve discovered that relaxation is also the prerequisite for imagination.

I was talking to my next-door neighbor, Michael Lewis, a best-selling author, once, and he told me about the time he nearly panicked when, deep into the research for a book, he lost the note book he had been using. I looked at him and said, “And the book turned out ….”

“Oh, much better,” he said. And we both cracked up.

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The suffering of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten at Wikimedia Commons

Kahlo and Rivera. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons

I popped into the Frida Kahlo exhibition currently at the San Francisco MOMA. Mainly, to see her piercing paintings–and boy, do they pierce–but also, at least in part, as research for my book.

A friend of ours, Erika Lessey Chen, had suggested Kahlo to me a year ago as a possible life-story to look into. I had told Erika that I’m interested in people whose success (triumph) somehow turned into failure (disaster), or whose failure somehow turned into success, à la Kipling’s impostors.

Does Kahlo fit my story-line? Mostly, I’m looking at characters such as Hannibal’s enemy and nemesis Scipio to illustrate how disaster at the right moment in a life can liberate a person–set free his or her imagination and creativity, and thus initiate a much bigger triumph in the future. People such as J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs.

But disaster can have other effects, of course. There is the strength that comes from overcoming it. I’ve mentioned Joe Biden and Demosthenes in that context. Among the main characters in my book, the person who would personify that is Fabius, the old Roman senator who was the only one not to despair after Hannibal’s crushing victories.

And Kahlo? As I walked through the exhibition and looked at her absolutely harrowing self-portraits, I realized that she had done something else again with her own disasters: She had made the disasters themselves the success.

Here she was on a hospital bed in Detroit, her body writhing and bleeding, with a uterus and a fetus torn out of her. She painted it after yet another miscarriage. The people in the exhibition became very quiet in front of that one.

There she was bound in a steel corset with a broken spinal column, her entire body pierced with nails. In this painting, she is all pain and frustrated sexual desire.

Over there she is sitting in a double-self-portrait, after her marriage to Diego Rivera had failed. She is holding hands with herself, and simultaneously tries and fails to stop the bleeding of her heart. (All these paintings seem to be copyrighted, so I don’t want to show them here.)

What were her disasters? The first was polio, which she caught at age six, and which left her right leg atrophied. The second was a bus accident when she was eighteen. She broke her spine, her pelvis, and lots of other bones, and an iron handrail pierced her uterus, leaving her infertile. The third, arguably, was falling in love with Diego Rivera, whom she adored but who was never faithful to her.

In short: pain, infertility, loneliness. And to deal with it, she painted. And the painting made her into the most “successful” Mexican artist ever.

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Biden and Demosthenes: A tale of two stammerers

As I was watching Beau Biden (video below) and his father Joe at the Democratic Convention today, I was struck by a stunning parallel between Senator Biden’s remarkable life story and that of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes.

Both were stammerers in their youth. Both were taunted for it with cutting nicknames–“dash” for Biden, since he left his words hanging with a dash; batalus for Demosthenes, which meant both asshole and stammerer.

But both defined themselves by overcoming this impediment, and thus turning their greatest weakness–speaking–into their greatest strength–oratory. Demosthenes went on to become the single greatest orator not only in Greece but in all of history. Statesmen from Cicero to Disraeli and Churchill looked to him for lessons in how to move a political audience with speech. Joe Biden, too, became an effective–and, if anything, a garrulous–senator and may now become vice president.

As always, it is how they overcame that is the story. Joe Biden’s story is all over the news this week. But you may not know Demosthenes’ story. Here is the brief version, as Plutarch tells it:

Once, after Demosthenes was once again laughed out of the forum of Athens for his slobbering, panting attempts at speech, he was walking in dejection around the port. An actor followed him and caught up. He asked Demosthenes to recite passages from Euripides and Sophocles. Demosthenes recited them. As soon as he stopped, the actor would deliver the same passage, but with full force and feeling, with gesture and emotion.

Demosthenes was so inspired that he built himself a sort of cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech. He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out. With laser-like focus, he stayed in that dungeon and worked on his tongue, his vocal cords, his gestures, his cadence, his logic.

Eventually he came out of his cave and set his hurdles higher. He recited speeches while running up hills. He went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves. When even that became easy, he put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf. Here he is, as the painter Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ imagined him:

In time, he became the greatest orator, and then the greatest statesman, of his country and time, Athens in the fourth century BCE. It would be Demosthenes who roused the Athenians against the menace of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

Were the early failures, setbacks and shortcomings of Joe Biden and Demosthenes impostors, in Kipling‘s sense? Do they belong in my book, which is about how the two impostors, triumph and disaster, work? Stammering, for Biden or Demosthenes, was not a liberating event, as failure was for Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, or Hannibal’s nemesis, the great Scipio. Their stammer was more like a gauntlet that life threw before their soul. Success in life can be about picking such gauntlets up and then going deep, way deep, to find the strength.

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Why tell stories that are really … old?

So where is Hannibal in this blog so far, you ask? After all, the book, whatever its final title will be, will have his name on the cover, and he is the main character.

Well, let’s just say that in talking about my book I’ve become a bit shy about crashing in the door with the word Hannibal–as opposed to, say, life, success and failure, triumph and disaster. I try to take my cues from the audience. If I think I might get some blank stares–or, worse, ‘Hannibal, as in Lecter?’–I say that I’m basing it on a true story that happened long ago and leave it at that.

This doesn’t always work. There was this dinner party, for instance, where some of the people at the table loved history (as evident from the bookshelf) and were begging to hear why and how Hannibal in particular fits the theme so well. Then there was another person, of the blank-stare sort. I did an awkward verbal dance–first throwing some red meat to the history types, but feeling guilty about leaving the other one out; then doing a sort of inspirational self-help pitch using the modern examples that appear in the book, such as Lance Armstrong.

So, before we get into the man–the man–and the time and the story, here is what I’d like to say about the classics in general: If you don’t know them and love them, it’s your loss. When I went to college, it had just become fashionable to dismiss all these DWMs (dead white males). What utter nonsense! We don’t study them because they’re dead, white or male. We study them because they made us who and what we in the West are. To live fully in our world, you need to know what, say, a photon is, what DNA is, what a balance sheet is, and so on. You also need to have heard of Alexander and Hannibal and Caesar. You need to have at least a general sense that, for example, Plutarch wrote things that profoundly influenced our founding fathers, who read him again and again to distill his timeless lessons and shape our republic. Harry Truman, who never even went to college, spent his nights on a Missouri farm reading about Hannibal. We’ve started losing our familiarity with our heritage only in the past generation.

So yes, I love the classics and I appreciate people who appreciate the classics. J.K. Rowling is just one example that’s already come up. In that same speech I quoted from, she jokes:

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

Well, she’s got keys to a lot more now. A lot of bathrooms (I’m guessing, I haven’t used them). And much, much more: soul. Here she goes:

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

And since she did not add it, I will: Knowing the classics (whether you read them in the original or take the shortcut through a modern storyteller such as … well, if you’re desperate, yours truly) will help you achieve things inwardly that change your outer reality.

Here is how Rowling signed off:

And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

And here is how I will sign off for now: Having put in a good word for DWMs, dead white males, I will stipulate a) that Hannibal was indeed male, b) that rumors of his death are not exaggerated, but c) that determining whether or not he was “white” is much more interesting than you may now think.

Much more about all that in the coming posts. Stay tuned, and don’t be shy leaving about your comments.

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Impostor Failure, Part II: J.K. Rowling

In my post on Steve Jobs, I suggested that his biggest failure in life turned out–certainly in his own opinion–to be a liberating event that made possible his subsequent success. In other words, his failure was an impostor, just as Rudyard Kipling would say. In this post, I want to suggest the exact same thing, with a different example: one that is female, creative, vulnerable, touching. The example of J.K. Rowling.

Rowling is one of the most successful book authors of all time, and the most successful by far of those alive today. Who knows? Her Harry Potter books may yet become classics that endure down the ages. Rowling herself would be thrilled, because she loves classics and studied them, to the distress of her poor (literally) parents, who wanted her to study something “useful”. As a classics fiend myself (in a world of blank stares whenever anything Greek or Roman comes up), I love her just for that.

But let’s get to her “failure”. Her commencement address at Harvard this year was, in its entirety, a paean to failure–its ability to help a young person navigate life and to liberate her imagination. For the first nine minutes, she reminds her audience of (mostly) successful Harvard graduates and parents of her own family’s crushing poverty when she went to university, but says that “What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.” Then failure came:

… by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

She did not see it at the time, but this turned out to be a liberating event, rather as Steve Jobs’ career disaster at the age of thirty had been for him:

Here are the key passages:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

More disasters followed. She lost her mother, she thought of killing herself, she was depressed. But she kept writing–in cafés, whenever her baby daughter fell asleep–and letting her imagination range freely as it now, after failure, could. The irony would soon be complete: several publishers turned down her Harry Potter story! Even her book, in other words, began as a failure. Then, one publisher took it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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