Writers, lose your notebooks


No, I don’t mean that all of you should literally throw them away right now. In fact, I keep all of my notebooks, going back years, officially for libel-defense purposes but really out of superstition. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s really about the following anecdote.

I happen to live next door to Michael Lewis, an author of several bestsellers (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, et cetera). He and I were walking down the hill once to get some lunch. We got to talking about the time that he came back from a big reporting trip for a book, only to discover …. that his notebook was gone!

“And it turned out….”, I began asking.

“Oh, much, much better,” he said.

And we both cracked up.

When my notebook lost me

Here is a brief description of my early years as a journalist, which is the experience that made me laugh at (ie, understand) Michael’s response.

When I started, I was so enthusiastic about observing every last detail and capturing every quote by everybody I met that I agonized over my note-taking. I could not write fast enough. In the evenings, I took a night course in shorthand (Teeline). I was the only guy; all the others seemed to be young ladies training to be secretaries (somebody should have told them that this wouldn’t prove so useful in their careers). But even that didn’t help. I never got fast enough.

So I had the quintessential writer’s predicament: Do you live, absorb, participate, think, see, hear, smell, act? Or do you stop life, and write it all down?

Recording interviews, with one of those little gadgets, didn’t help either. I didn’t like fiddling with them, and they usually intruded into the conversation, pointing at my interviewee like a dart that might be poisonous. Those things distracted me, and I threw them away.

Even so, I did capture quite a lot. I observe well, and I get “good quote” out of people. So, for a while, I was writing my articles quote to quote, detail to detail. Today, I believe that was the worst writing I have ever done.

At least close it

Around that time I heard John Micklethwait give somebody advice. The lady was having writer’s block, and John, the quintessential British cavalier, said, roughly:

“First, close your notebook. Then trust that it will come.”

(These days, John is The Economist‘s editor-in-chief–ie, my boss–so the trick must have worked for him. ;))

Relax and trust

Writing, and all storytelling, is necessarily a two-step process: 1) You live. 2) You pause, re-live and tell. You can’t merge the two artificially by writing everything down as it happens. If you try, you only interfere with Part 1).

Instead, good writers know how to relax. Only when the brain is relaxed does it make the lateral connections, the quirky associations that we call creativity. And only when you are relaxed can your interview partners relax as well.

Good writers then trust. They trust that ‘it’ comes back to them. And ‘it’ does. What is ‘it’? It is whatever comes back!

By the time it comes back, it is like water that has percolated through sediment and become pure and clean and potable. A writer’s memory is therefore like a filter, provided the writer lets it be that. What it filters is the entire overwhelming world of detail, so that only a few–the right ones–run onto the screen and become life-giving, texture-giving color.

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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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