What Works

001My tastes have shifted in the last decade, but for perhaps 20 years I had a ready answer if someone asked me my favorite writer. It was Andre Dubus (the father and not the son, who is also a wonderful writer). Yesterday I found myself reading Dubus’ essay, “Brothers,” a meditation on friendship and how lives shift and change. It was published in a posthumous book of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair

The essay revolves around baseball games he attended with friends, Red Sox opening over a period of many years. At one point in the essay, Dubus reflects on the concentration it takes to play baseball and also to write. “Wade Boggs, watching a pitch come to the plate, starting his stride and swing, probably does not know his own name, for his whole being is concentrated on that moving white ball.” He then goes on to say, “These moments are so pure, they may be sacred.” Dubus was a devout Catholic, and he never shied away from tying the commonplace to the spiritual. In another essay in that same book, he discusses how making a meal for another person is a kind of sacrament. I couldn’t agree more.

I have been thinking about my writing process. Since I started my daily practice sixth months ago today, I have learned one very important thing about myself: I write much better, more productively, without distractions and without interruption. I have found myself up here in this office in moments of the kind of concentration Dubus describes. I pick my hands up from the keyboard, and I stare at a tall bookshelf. I am too far away from it to read anything but a very few words on certain book spines. I know the words so well now–“Sports Illustrated 50,” “Dennis Lehane,” “Vineland”–that they are more image than words. I can stare at the top shelves and think only of the question in front of me. What word do I need? Does this scene make sense? What would this character do? Perhaps that concentration has produced a better next sentence, a better next scene.

I have written a great deal over my life, including sections of three books, co-writing two of them. In 2001, I co-wrote a book, Digital Rights Management: Business and Technology. It’s a very good book, mainly because of the keen intellect of the main author, Bill Rosenblatt, and his determination to make it so. I ended up writing four chapters, and was having trouble with the fourth, when I had to travel to Berlin on business. The deadline for the fourth chapter was going to fall the day after I was giving a talk at a conference. I wasn’t well prepared for the talk either. At the last minute, I decided to extend the trip in Berlin, add two days before the conference, giving myself the chance to do my writing and more thoughtfully prepare for my talk.

The hotel key card is from the trip. I remember the Steigenberger as a nice hotel, modern, in a great neighborhood. It lightened my spirits as soon as I saw it. I arrived–as business people often do–in the morning after an overnight flight. I set up at a sleek desk in from of big bright windows. I went right to work, had a productive day of writing, then found a restaurant with outdoor seating. It was a beautiful Spring evening. I had nearly finished the chapter, then finished it the next morning, emailed it to my editor, and returned to the same restaurant. It wasn’t quite noon yet, but I celebrated with a beer.

Whatever is working for me now–uninterrupted quiet–didn’t work for me then. I often liked to work where it was noisy, or where I had distractions–music, or conversations, or something idiotic to do on the computer, like a game or email. I co-wrote two books that way, dozens of professional articles, even more marketing pieces. I wrote in hotel rooms, bars, public libraries, Amtrak trains and planes, conference rooms in stolen moments between meetings.

I couldn’t work that way now. Am I doing something better? Something worse? Have I changed? If a student came to me with this question, I could never offer a firm answer, but my first idea is that I have changed. I had a kind of energy before that I don’t have now–advantage 41-year-old-Bill–but now I have a mental quiet that I didn’t have then–advantage 56-year-Bill.

I would  talk to the student, get more of a picture of what they were doing, thinking, and why it worried them. I would ultimately ask the student if the new process was working, if they felt productive and satisfied with what they produced. If the answer were yes, I would tell them, don’t overthink it. It’s all good.

I think the answer is yes.


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