Concluding Van Jackson’s “Nuke Your Darlings” blog about writing a history book… “Well, I missed yesterday’s entry,” writes Jackson (Entry 79 of 92) on April 6, 2018. “I’m an exhausted bag of bones by evening time.” On the return flight, his blog reveals that he sees life as “a collection of habits interspersed with 8-Mile moments,” that phrase denoting Eminem’s movie, especially his key soundtrack song, “Lose Yourself.” (Not your stereotypical academic, eh?)
From this nadir blooms resurgence. “These final chapters are flowing,” he writes on Apr 11. In Wellington, he decides to climax the book with the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, scrambling at the last moment to wrap that into his narrative and analysis. How bold! Each April day now delivers draft slabs even while the North Korea situation explodes with rumor and news that leave him “mentally and emotionally exhausted.” In late April, jettisoning all his other mandatory commitments, “I wrote like a man possessed this weekend – more than 3,000 words [wow!].” On Apr 25, getting set to conclude drafting, he diverts to blog how he organises his day, 31 planned time segments from 5 AM to 9 PM – I know, he sounds over prescriptive, but guess what: I’m like that!
Apr 27: “700 words closer to finishing today but still not quite there.” And then we’re there, Entry 92 on April 30:
First draft complete!… It’s bittersweet, but now that I have a full draft in hand, I intend for this to be my final Nuke Your Darlings entry. As of now I have 93,000 words, which is more than the limit I agreed to in the publishing contract. I just need to pare it down as I revise. I skimmed through most of the chapters today and really like what I’ve produced. I’m kind of amazed that I did this. Hopefully readers will enjoy the final product!… These daily entries have also helped me reflect on how I write… The biggest surprise benefit of this diary is how it’s seemingly affected others.”
Well, I’m one off those affected. To hold a dream in the face of an uncaring universe is tough but wonderful.
“This weekend was crazy busy, again,” blogs Van Jackson on drafting his terrific history. It’s March 19, eight months ago! “71,000 words… The good news is that I’ll definitely have my 80,000 words by the June 1 deadline.” A TV interview the next day leaves him in “fast-brain mode on steroids,” and puzzling about Trump means he has “trouble defending my writing time today.” I fall in love with Van Jackson when, on March 22, he says “The Great Gatsby” taught him to “transform myself through discipline and routine.” (Isn’t that what my Big Decade is?) The next day, John Bolton (“Deep breath,” Jackson tells himself) is annointed by Trump as his National Security Adviser. A week later in the thick of a conference, he is stunned to hear Kim Jong Un has visited China: “… quite possibly my most unproductive day yet.” At the start of April, “cramped, dehydrated, jet lagged, and exhausted” at a San Francisco conference, he blogs, to my amazement, about what advice he gives to students thinking about doing a PhD!
A complete change of tack the next day, when with a friend:
What made us so close was our unconventional approach to the job, and to life. We both have a strange conviction that you can sort of create your own reality. Not so much in a Trumpian “fake news” sense, but in a Gatsby-ian sense. We’ve both gone about it in our own ways, but it’s what brought us to work on strategy in the first place. Both of us are prone to try big, hairy, audacious things, and both of us pay virtually no attention to the odds stacked against us when we do.
Today I’ve only covered a couple of weeks in the Van Jackson saga. Why am I spending so much time on it when I should be writing my own book? Because so few writers talk to me as me right now, doing what I’m doing, and this guy does. That para above moves me grandly because, like Jackson, I believe a decade and a half of work on the nuclear book is not wasted and will blossom.
I can take no more emotion right now.
Darwin has a greater number of fine cafes than its reputation suggests, but that doesn’t mean it’s a boon for a writer who prefers to work in a cafe. I used to cycle to Luck Bat cafe in Nightcliff but now it closes at 2 PM and often my best out-of-town drafting stretches take place mid afternoon. So I’ve relocated to Laneway cafe in Parap, 12 kms by bike (which took a full sweaty hour this morning because I had to frequently prop and navigate). A lovely place but I’m just not used to being sweaty, sweaty, and sweaty (though I shouldn’t complain, I’ve been whinging about Melbourne’s cold for months, you know how old people whinge). So yesterday saw some good work but not enough, and today has seen a most slow start. I’ll do a push right now. Bring yourself some pride, Andres.
Yesterday I left Van Jackson on February 6, 2018, at Entry 39 (of 92) of his blog about drafting “On the Brink,” in a calm space, regularly adding words (at a rate most inspiring to this author) every day amidst at busy day job. A Feb 8 downtick: “feeling so exhausted.” Then a good weekend – 1,700 words – also sees him declaring that “we’re effectively out of the [North Korean] nuclear crisis from last year.” On Feb 14: “Recently though, I developed a bit of tunnel vision for the subject of the book.” “I suppose I’m biased,” he notes five days later, “but there’s a lot of good, new stuff in this book…” Two days later, despair: “I have to let off some steam… I’m again hitting a point where I’m running myself ragged.” On Feb 27, after writing that he is trying to “emphasize chronology,” he also confides that “most of my writing tricks and practices come from movies, hip-hop lyrics, and time spent in the Pentagon.”
He bounces back “I was on a roll today, writing nearly 1,000 words in two hours [wow, says I] in the morning.” He’s now up to the Trump section of the book and, at the start of March, after castigating its “totally erratic foreign policy” (this is the day Trump hits China with tariffs), the next day he reflects on the evils of the North Korean regime. Words are now a torrent: “I am literally living through history as I write it.” On March 9, Trump says he’s going to meet Kim Jong Un in May, throwing Jackson (and all analysts and pundits) into a badly informed tizzy. Output slows. On Mar 13, he does something unprecedented, an office clean-up. On Mar 15, amidst bewilderment, he muses that his current book words are “about stuff now that I was writing about real-time as a commentator.” It’s March 16, Entry 67 of 92, and “I wrote 730 words today despite puzzling my way,” via the blog, about Trump’s upcoming summit.
I’m panting with excitement. Here he is, drafting a book unfolding right now, in which he was recently a participant. How on earth does he continue? Why doesn’t he fold?
I’ve never run with headphones. Terrified that I’m careless and clumsy as I am, let alone without any sound input from the outside world. Author Peter Sagal, in this delightfully written NYT article, “The case against running with headphones,” recalls a friend who uses headphones because he “can’t spend that much time alone in my head.” It occurs to me that one reason I might use sports earbuds is because my inner dialogue while running is all fretting about making the end distance. No amount of Headspace this year has fixed up that issue. If I distracted myself with music, would I improve?
It’s such a rarity for a writer to conscientiously write about the writing of a book while doing it. It’s even rarer when the book is in your field of interest. Well, a recent research book right on topic is Van Jackson’s “On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War.” Jackson was tasked with producing his manuscript over the first six months of this year! What’s more, he blogged 92 times about it in a cheekily titled series “Nuke Your Darlings” on the geeky, wonky, feisty War on the Rocks website. The website actually sparkles in appearance but it’s not easy to navigate and I never did manage to get blog entries 2 to 6. Nonetheless, right now I’ve worked my way through to entry 40 in early February.
What a wonderful tale! He begins writing on December 14, 2017, with great excitement. Amazingly enough, almost as soon as he commences writing the book, Trump ratchets the world towards nuclear conflict by threatening to give North Korea a “bloody nose.” Jackson is sought after as an interviewee. He writes op-eds. On December 22: “Writing about all this at such a precarious time is catharsis. At least today.” Six days later: “The words came easy…” On January 1 of this year, he reports “a good start to the new year.” His January 4’s entry is titled: “A wonk’s love-hate relationship with Twitter.” Then comes a minor crash, on January 15: “I managed to write just over 600 words this weekend, which is no bueno” On January 22, he confesses to “my first potent feeling so self-doubt…” Two days later, “I got my groove back today… I decided to wall myself off from social media during my [two-hour] writing window.” At the end of January, he can boast of “a productive weekend – 1,800 words,” and on February 2: “This Obama chapter is pouring out of my fingertips onto the keyboard.” Three days later, he can write that “in terms of productivity I’m killing it.”
I’m not even halfway but the tension is holding me rapt. Of course I know he does finish his book, for I’m going through it right now on my Kindle, for research purposes, but somehow Jackson imbues drama into every day of writing about the writing. I commend “Nuke Your Darlings” to you.
Finders Keepers, a welcoming café in Hawthorn, is my new daily home. What better feeling than to bring along a pile of research data!
This year’s collapsed 1,000 Big Year has left me stranded and I can’t take any more days without an overarching structure. So I’m starting early, a month early. My major focus for 2019 will kick off not on January 1 but on December 1, 2018.
I contemplated not including a “writerly” Big Year in 2019. They’re hard to make work, these multi-hour push-type big years. As I said, my 2018 1,000 Big Year collapsed, while my 2017 Writing Big Year motivated me but was hard to handle. But no, next year is so, so important in terms of getting words out, that I’m calling it the Author Big Year.
No more complexity. Whilst I’ll use the lessons of the last two years to wake early, kybosh email until the afternoon, and channel morning energy, a big year really needs simplicity, the utmost simplicity. So I’ve decided to focus on hours worked on my words. I’ve set a target for each and every day. But on holidays and grandparenting days, clearly I’ll do zero hours, so I’m setting a higher, compensating target for interruption-free days. Here is my extended 13-month 2019:
- 6.5 hours per day (8 hours on a “clear” day)
- Weekly 45 hours (60 over a blemish-free week)
- Over the entire Author Big Year: 2,600 hours.
What a wonderful interview by Brandon Stosuy at The Creative Independent, talking to GQ writer Zach Baron. Maybe I’m a better writer than I was when I began, but one skill that I’ve made no progress on is interviewing. I’ve done quite a bit of it but am still shambolic. If I could implement these five tips, surely I’d improve?