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The Operator is now in operation!

My recent ghostwriting project, The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed bin Laden and My Years As a SEAL Team Warrior, published today, April 25, and as of noon it was #4 on Amazon bestsellers list. Robert O’Neill is a smart, articulate guy with a one-of-a-kind story to tell. You can read the first chapter here, just click on “Look Inside”.  Check it out.

 

WRITING FAQ

question-markI activated my Goodreads author account and the Goodreads bot sent me some questions to answer. Hey I put in the time, so I might as well post them here:

Q: HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH WRITER’S BLOCK?
A: In my first newspaper job, the news editor had a slogan printed in huge WWIII headline type and taped it above his desk. It was exactly three words long, and it has stayed in my mind ever since as the single best antidote to writer’s block. It said: “DON’T WRITE, TYPE.”
So whenever I get stuck, I remind myself that nothing matters but putting words on the screen, one followed by another. You can always come back to improve it — that’s the fun part — but you need SOMETHING to work on. And sometimes you surprise yourself, and just by typing, you come up with something unexpectedly worthwhile.
Q: WHAT’S THE BEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
A: It’s not the writing, that’s for sure. To borrow a phrase, it’s the “having written.” There is nothing to match the feeling of accomplishment you get when you manage to express an idea or a feeling or tell a story in a way that matches the inexpressible internal sensation you were trying to express to begin with.
Q: WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO ASPIRING WRITERS?
Never think that writing well is about the words and sentences. It’s about the ideas, information, sensations and insights behind the words.  You can have brilliant ideas and screw it up by failing to find the words to express them, but you can always keep working on it until the words get out of your way and the ideas come through. But if you don’t have anything interesting or important to say in the first place, no amount of beautiful words or clever turns of phrase will ever make what you write worth reading.
QUESTION: HOW DO YOU GET INSPIRED TO WRITE?
I clean out the closet. Not always literally. But to get ready to accomplish the almost impossibly hard work of writing, I start out accomplishing the much smaller, easier tasks of every day life — whether balancing the checkbook, answering emails or organizing my desk. Once I get that done, I’m feeling ready for the tough stuff. If I have something written already, I go through from the top, revising, adding, deleting, and by the time I get to the end of that, I’m warmed up and ready to push forward into the jungle.
QUESTION: WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER WHO EVER LIVED?
 
For so many people, maybe even most—and it’s certainly true of me and my siblings—even extreme dramas in family history beyond one generation removed become a kind of white noise, tuned out until it’s too late. I can’t remember the exact moment it occurred to me, but at some point a question popped into my head about my grandfather and I realized nobody alive could answer it.

Even as the details of my grandfather’s life evaporated from the reservoir of human memory, my questions about him grew more numerous and insistent. I couldn’t explain why it had never occurred to me that my desire to become a writer, or the fact that I had, to some extent, succeeded in that rather ludicrous ambition, might have something to do with my heritage, and specifically my grandfather. If anyone ever asked me why I wanted to write, I remembered a moment in an eighth-grade English class poetry section when the teacher chose my poem to read, and my chattering, snoozing classmates actually sat up at their desks, stopped talking, and listened. But suddenly, a half century tardy, I remembered that, around the time I was learning to read, I would corral a tiny portable typewriter—a functional toy (and who gave their five-year-olds typewriters as toys?)—roll in a sheet of crisp white paper, and attempt, letter by letter, to copy the text from The Cat in the Hat, mesmerized by the idea that by assembling words together, one typed letter at a time, one could actually create that magical thing called a book.

When I did the math in my head, I realized that this unusual childhood literary fetish would have coincided perfectly with the moment of my grandfather’s maximum fame. Could I really believe it was unrelated? Had I been predisposed by nurture or nature, or simply by imitation, to tie my identity to the written word? Could so complex a skill as writing possibly be passed down in Grandpa’s DNA? Could it be mere coincidence that my most fervent dreams of accomplishment were precisely those things my grandfather in fact accomplished?

I had only too late considered the possibility that I might have been formed or even influenced by the abilities, proclivities, or eccentricities of my near and distant forbears after the firsthand sources of knowledge about them had forever vanished.

Who arrives at maturity without experiencing that regret? Why, I wondered, do most of us have these dual and conflicting tendencies, resisting our genealogical past as if it were an existential threat, yet ultimately pining to connect with it, even as it vanishes before our eyes?

Suddenly, questions about the past, your past, and your family’s past begin to flood in, questions that could have been so easily, or at least profitably, answered during the lifetimes of your parents or their parents, but have become literally unanswerable, lost forever behind the impenetrable veil of death.

Tracing one’s lineage, a persistent psychological impulse through the ages, has also become a cultural mainstay. A 2013 Time magazine story called genealogy the second most popular American hobby after gardening, and the second most visited category of websites after pornography. Popular reality TV shows are filled with genealogical sleuths digging through crumbling registers and handwritten census documents. The portraits they manage to draw with great effort, even when they make lucky finds, are mere outlines providing in the end little more than ancestral stick figures.

I realized I had an advantage, a big advantage—if not unique, at least exceedingly rare: in the Library of Congress of the United States, which happened to stand less than twenty-five miles from my home, was a room stacked with 158 boxes filled with 50,000 items; countless pages of indexed correspondence, contracts, manuscripts, photographs, journals, tax returns, paraphernalia, and even an unpublished autobiographical novel—all of it by or about my grandfather. This vast cache—collected because a committee at the Library in the 1950s determined that my grandfather represented a “typical American writer”—was supplemented by the forty-some books that he had published, including at least two autobiographies, as well as a memoir about him written by my uncle—almost none of which I had ever read.

What secrets, what forgotten calamities and unremembered triumphs, what surprising revelations and shocking truths could be pried from those cardboard file folders, all that slowly disintegrating cellulose and black ribbon ink? Was it possible, forty years after his death, that I could get to know my grandfather, not as a teenager might remember a sometimes garrulous old man, but as a contemporary could come to know a living, breathing intimate? More than an intimate—someone whose blood ran in mine, whose most primal makeup mixed in quarters to make me who I am. In learning about my grandfather’s life, what would I come to discover of my own? What would I gain from studying the minute realities of the history of a man from a now distant era to whose life and mine bore such obvious parallels? What could I learn about writing from my grandfather’s mastery of words, his huge success, and his ultimate failure?

And what would that tell me about why any of us care about our ancestors? Are we blank sheets of paper, waiting to write our own stories? Or are we merely appendixes to lives already lived and largely forgotten?

Ghosts of August

Gene Weingarten was rooting around in the past and came up with a 400-word essay I wrote for Tropic Magazine in the “Calendar Issue” that ran the last Sunday of the year in 1986. This was a gimmick issue, where we had full page calendars accompanied by a piece of art and a short essay relating to each month. My month was August. It’s very interesting to read something you wrote that you have no (or almost no) memory of having written. That sense of not knowing what the next sentence, the next word, is going to be is essential to the reading experience — and impossible for the author to duplicate — EXCEPT if it’s something he wrote 30 years earlier and hasn’t thought of since. As in this case.
Gene’s verdict was that it was 8% overwritten, and I can accept that. But as I read it, as if it were the first time I was ever seeing this particular grouping of words, I thought, “not bad.”

AUGUST IN MIAMI
1986

By August, the heat is like an injury you keep reinjuring. You begin to worry that all that pain has got to add up to something bad. It bakes your paint job and cracks your vinyl dash. It melts the asphalt and lingers spitefully at night. Your sheets are damp.

Each day is the same, and the ocean is flat, windless, heavy — molten lead. ‘ It rains, but the rain brings no relief, and mold grows in your closets and you think it’s growing between your toes and on your teeth. Flossing doesn’t help either, and you begin to feel that whatever is growing isn’t mold but malignancy.

And then you understand a hurricane, you understand the angry force that spawns it. The sun cauterizes the ocean, a hot poker on an open wound. Power hemorrhages from the sky day upon day. The threat is born, and the threat is fed.

It is a threat you have to wake up with in the morning and sleep with at night, like the missiles in the submarines swimming up the Gulf Stream, or the words “I want a divorce” in a bad marriage. And like all threats you live with, you forget about it until the sun pounds it into your brain again, or if your head is deep in the sand, it takes the man on the 11 o’clock news.

Will you pull down the storm shutters that have been rusted in place for a decade? Will you pack your bags and roll up the carpets and leave for who knows where at 3 in the morning? Because if you believe what August has been trying to tell you, you shouldn’t have built or bought a house here in the first place. And will your insurance cover the loss or even begin to? Will the causeways be clogged? Or just washed out to sea?

The heat of August threatens to go on in unchanging monotony to the end of time. Until it starts to push the sea over the sea wall and threatens to change everything instead. Change beyond recognition or redemption. For the only point of the month is the Storm, or the threat of the Storm and to walk through the heat is nothing against walking with that dark threat on your back: a disaster with no one to blame, the kind of random, unpredictable horror we hope to eliminate with our vaccines and C-sections, V-E Day and the Neighborhood Crime Watch.

Back to Newsbreak: The watch has become a warning. It takes 12 hours to get out, and the storm is, or may be, only nine hours away. Since it is the middle of the night, you go to sleep with the radio on and wake up to blue skies and wind and another threat that was just a bad dream.

And now you’ve got a whole season, two seasons, of cool, but not too cool, breezes — six months to pretend that nothing is out there, nothing threatens. Six months to forget.

A Big Ol’ Slushball

A writer named David Cameron did something very clever: He copied a short story published in the New Yorker and sent it out, as a submission with a false name, to assorted and sundry literary journals. They all rejected it. Form letters. Then he submitted it to the New Yorker, which rejected the story they had previously published. Just to be sure, he did it again with another New Yorker story. Same results.

So what do aspiring writers conclude from this little experiment in masochism?

That pursuing publication is a hopeless, thankless, random enterprise in which merit counts for next to nothing?

Gee, now that I say that out loud, it sounds a little too defeatist. Don’t let the bastards get you down. YOUR story will be blessed. It will be so good, that even a system stacked against you will buckle and crumble when exposed to its brilliance.

So Carry On!

But don’t get your hopes up.

 

So You Don’t Think You Need Copy Editors?

Trips

It’s been months since my last post, mostly because I’m working on another book, this one about the ever fascinating topic of psychedelic drugs. And speaking of unforgettable trips, a travel piece I wrote a year ago about spending Christmas in Spain just ran in the Post travel section. Since it had a seasonal theme, they had to hold it for 11 months. That set up an interesting scenario. When I read it online today, enough time had passed so I barely remembered writing it, which allowed me to read it as a reader, rather than an author. As I read, I wasn’t sure what was going to come next. I was capable of being surprised by a turn of phrase, to get an overall sense of personality that was myself, but not quite myself — like looking at an old photo in which your hairstyle was slightly different, your features just discernibly younger and the shirt you’re wearing is not one you ever remember having.

It’s the second travel piece I’ve written for the Post. The first — actually the second, but it ran first — was on a kayak trip to the Everglades. Both of them were a pleasure to work on, which is a rare thing for me to say about any piece of writing. I think it is because trips are always natural narratives with two destinations — one the literal, the other psychological. As you work out the writing, you discover the hidden meaning of the voyage, and the sometimes surprising psychic path you traveled to arrive there.

Welcome to another episode of “Bad Editing”

Sincerely, if you want to see a demonstration of the consequences of tone deaf editing than check out this link.  This is all due to my friend Rachel Manteuffel, who was walking home from work one day and happened to pass by the new MLK memorial on the National Mall. She noticed one of the quotes carved into the granite just didn’t seem right. She wrote an op-ed column about it, and today, the Secretary of the Interior announced that the quote would be changed. Here’s the context:

In a 1968 sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church King told a biblical story of James and John, who ask Jesus for the most prominent seats in heaven. He said that this was an example of the  ‘‘drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade.’’  It was that desire, he warned, that could lead to ‘‘snobbish exclusivism’’ and from there to  ‘‘tragic race prejudice.’’

‘‘Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior . . . ”

Imagining his own funeral, King said he didn’t want to be remembered for all the things that set him apart, like the Nobel Peace Prize he had won, or the accolades  of world leaders. He had no interest, he said, in being remembered as a drum major. Instead, King asked to be remembered as someone who ‘‘tried to give his life serving others’.’

He concluded: ‘Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.’’

Someone charged with editing material for the memorial, which was only going to be CARVED IN STONE, decided that quote would be a great summation of his life. Only it was impossible to carve such a long quote in the granite. So here’s what some public servant came up with as a condensed version:

“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Nice work!

 

Shaking the Grapefruit Tree

Here are my comments on the most recent Nieman Storyboard Editors’ Roundtable discussion on the very entertaining piece by Jessica Pressler in New York Magazine:

 

On lively writing:

Jessica Pressler produces a fun read here, and I’d like to focus on how a lot of what is “fun” is a combination of lively, original language and acute observation. Throughout, she manages to surprise the reader with tart but entirely apt images – funny because they are both irreverent and true.

Consider the first description of the subject, Diane Passage:

 

When she laughs, her grapefruit-tree physique bounces merrily.

It’s more original and less vulgar than “tits on a stick,” and it goes somewhere, too – between the laughter and the merry bouncing you start to be predisposed to like a not-entirely-sympathetic character.

Passage giggles again, and the ensuing undulations manage to pull Barry’s attention back from the blonde who’d just passed by.

“Ensuing undulations” works so beautifully because it is a comically high description of such a low phenomenon, very Damon Runyon-esque – but also so true: We’ve all seen enough Barrys to know that head-swivel by heart.

Passage is one of those people that it feels like New York invented, though they thrive wherever male egos and dumb money coexist.

 

Another great observation – a fun clash of stylish language (“though they thrive”) and straight talk (“male egos and dumb money”) that is also poetry. A repeated one-syllable, two-syllable pattern pairing male with dumb and egos with money. A small slice of language perfection.

This next passage is a great use of what is always a smart writing strategy, which is to just give the readers the sensory info they need to draw their OWN conclusions:

His friend, let’s call him Paul, a tall, paunchy private-equity manager was quiet much of the evening but has become considerably more animated after a trip to the bathroom.

Now here comes another smart idea: wringing the meaning out of things others might pass by without comment. In this case, it’s a pretentious name with a transparent marketing strategy. Here’s how Pressler handles that:

Passage moved with her son from a small walk-up to a $7 million condo on the Upper East Side in a building so sure of its fabulousness that it was called “Lux74.”

Extreme compression is yet another artifact of good writing. Here Pressler finds a way to avoid the yadda-yadda of excessive background and tell the whole story in a phrase. The compression of how the character ended up so compromised is so extreme, and so plain spoken, that it becomes delightful, and hilarious:

As a kid, she’d dreamed of becoming a pop star or a veterinarian, but she couldn’t carry a tune and was allergic to hairy animals. By the time she was 18, all she really knew was that she needed to get the hell out of Detroit.

There are lots more like this to choose from, but I’ll end on one that I love because it cuts so directly to the truth of her character, and does so in a way that makes readers look at something familiar in a new way:

“If I was you, I know what I’d do,” said a male colleague one day in 2004, when she confided her problems. He eyed her curvy figure. “I’d go straight to a strip club.”

Some women might have gone straight to human resources. But Passage is a person who considers all offers.

History Happens Here

Since I stopped commuting to downtown DC daily, something interesting has happened: I appreciate the city more. Every trip downtown I see something new and exciting happening — a cool new restaurant, a great neighborhood rising out of space that ten years ago was borderline depressing. Together, the sum of all Washington’s parts is a city vibrating with energy. It may be the Great Recession elsewhere, but for DC it’s boom times– which may say something unfortunate about mortgaging our futures in the name of ever bigger government, but it sure makes for an exciting and beautifully liveable city. I happened to have two dinners to go to this past weekend, both in DC, although in widely dispersed parts of the city. The first dinner took me by a park  I passed every day when I worked at the Post, McPherson Square. The usual Sunday scene of a few homeless men and their bundles spread out on the wood benches had transformed into what at first looked like a field sprouting with Gore-Tex mushrooms, but resolved into a village of domed pup-tents, crowded edge to edge three blocks from the White House. Occupy DC revolutionaries milled about, their fervor swirling around them like fog. There were signs all over, with slogans and whatnot, but my favorite was one that said: WE NEED TOOTHPASTE.  Throw in some deodorant while your at it.

The next night we were heading to Southeast, and that took us on Independence Avenue alongside the Tidal Basin. Suddenly we saw a huge field filled with the aftermath of what looked like another inauguration. There were police barricades and thousands of discarded cardboard boxes and stages and . . . what had just recently happened here?

And then we rolled past these four huge marble slabs, and as we passed by, the mountainous image of Martin Luther King Jr. emerged from one of the slabs, looking sternly down on us. Of course — it was the day of the dedication of the newest national memorial — a very big deal, rivaling in impact Lincoln’s little tribute just down the Mall. And the crowd was still streaming out of there . . . we’d missed the ceremony by an hour.

So two nights out in the nation’s capital, and two serendipitous brushes with history — the kind of things that will appear as iconic images for generations to come; a park populated with young people in need of toothpaste who believe that their beliefs alone have the power to change the world; a gathering to inaugurate a shrine to a man whose belief DID change the world, a shrine that had waited half a century for this one day of dedication.

And oh yeah, both dinners — one at a New Orleans place, one at a Greek place — were superb.

I’d love to live in Paris some day, but living in DC ain’t half bad.

 

A Slave to Language

Politicized language can be annoying. “Politically correct” is not exactly a term of admiration. That  irritation is justified to the degree that a change in language is meant to alter, rather than reflect reality. A perfect example of the bad kind of politically correct: “Deferred success” in place of “failure.” Very 1984 “War is Peace” type of thinking there. On the other hand, “Native Americans”  for “Indians,” is inarguably an example of the good kind of linguistic shift — mistaking the Americas for India was the biggest geographical gaffe in history, and its stubborn perpetuation is a metaphor for European arrogance and ignorance.

But recently I encountered an even more potent word change –all the more powerful because the word in question did not stick out as absurdly as “Indian.” It was a short, common word that I had never thought to question: “slave.” My wife and I were walking around a preserved colonial plantation when I noticed an interpretive sign that repeatedly used a novel (to me) phrase that almost knocked me over. Although this had been a Southern plantation, the word “slave” never appeared. It had been replaced, in all instances, by some form of  “enslaved man.”

My bias is always in favor of plain speaking. And slave, as ugly as the concept is, was at first glance a very honest word. But the more I thought about it, the more of a lie it became — a pernicious one at that.

Being a slave is something you are, an intrinsic state of being. Being enslaved is something that has been done to you, and has no bearing on your essential being. Calling someone a slave is instantly rendering that person as something other. The constant repetition of the alternative on the historical plaques — enslaved man, enslaved woman, enslaved people — had a surprisingly compelling effect. It made the condensed history of that plantation anything but the boilerplate that would have issued forth without that subtle edit — exponentially more awful, more real. 

And that’s exactly what words should do.