221b: Get Up and Write

Get Up and Write

I started watching Foundation on Apple TV this week (I’m late, I know), and it was so good I had to learn more about Isaac Asimov, the original author of the Foundation series. In an interview in 1975, after being asked how it was humanely possible, he could write 4,000 words a day – turning out book after magazine article after book – he said, “What it amounts to [being able to write so much] is that I’m not happy except when I’m writing. It’s almost the only way I can think of to spend my time pleasantly, and so I’m naturally drawn to the typewriter at all times. The day is lost in which I don’t type.” By 1980, he had over 200 books to his name. His routine for that kind of output is simple; he explains, “I get up in the morning, sit down and write, and when I finish writing, go back to bed.” Consistency helped make him great, but time did as well. He started writing in 1939 and was still typing away over 40 years later. Getting up every morning to sit down and write doesn’t seem like a terribly hard thing to do, and it’s not, but doing it for 40 years is. But when someone commits, as did Asimov, greatness comes within reach.

Asimov wasn’t only a fan of writing, he loved to read as well. Read the congratulatory letter he wrote to the recipients of a new library here.

Write Stuff Down

Aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831, Charles Darwin started journaling. He’d never stop. He wrote, “Let the collector’s motto be ‘Trust nothing to memory,’ for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting.” If you rely on your memory to hold the ideas and information you learn, and it actually works, you aren’t reading or learning enough interesting things. Darwin began journaling because he had to. He wouldn’t remember the crazy-beautiful-incredible things he saw out in the wild without it. If you’ve ever had the desire to start journaling, and have failed, don’t try harder to force yourself to journal. Instead, focus on your inputs. Make it so you’re overwhelmed with interesting ideas that you have no choice but to journal.

Anything to Win

So far, two lines have stood out in dialogue from Foundation. The first is, “A rotten tree trunk looks strong until a storm breaks it in two.” Lesson: We’re all just one small thing from breaking down. Anyone can look strong on the outside, but you never know what’s going on within. It’s good to be kind. The second is, “You can’t play chess with someone who is willing to set the board on fire.” Lesson: You can’t play fairly with someone who will do anything to win. It’s impossible. No strategy, smarts, or negotiation tactics will help you beat them because they’ll go so far outside the bounds of what’s allowed to ensure victory. It’s best to stay away from these types of people.

Shake things up

If you’re stuck creatively, shake things up. When Joan Baez has writer’s block, she writes with her non-dominant hand. She says, “Somewhere in my teenage years, probably out of boredom, I taught myself how to write backward, starting with EINAOJ ZEAB, my new name…I still write backward as a form of therapy when I need to get to the root of a blockage or calm the buzzing heat of a panic attack. It's as though the appropriate wires cross my brain when I write backward, which allows information otherwise unavailable to surface.” Haruki Murakami did something similar when he was writing his first novel. Instead of using manuscript paper and writing in Japanese, which made him feel like he was writing literature, he used a typewriter and wrote in English. Writing in English, his brain avoided the "system overload" that accompanied writing in Japanese. If you’re stuck, do things differently. Write on a napkin instead of paper, use crayons instead of a pen, or go to a dog park instead of a coffee shop.

Old Story; New Ways

Erik Larson’s books are literary masterpieces. He combines thousands of journal entries and other primary sources from different historical events into page-turning narratives that make you feel as if you know every character. Plus, my favorite thing, you learn a lot about history. When he began the process of writing The Splendid and the Vile, a book that chronicles life in London during the German air raids of 1940 and follows Winston Churchill’s life closely, he was questioned on the necessity of yet another Churchill-esque biography. “There’s always a way to tell an old story in a new way,” he said. “It’s all in the telling.” I like that. It’s all in the telling



Every Friday, I send an email with insights, ideas, and stories from the books and articles I read. I promise you'll find something new and interesting to read every week.