I recently gave a talk at the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I divulged my alleged wisdom about the business and art of writing. I got a flood of requests (i.e. two) asking me to reprint it, so I’m posting it here:
Here’s the 140 character version of my talk: Be bold and experimental….within limits.
Let me start with just some quick background. As a writer, I do like to do experiments. I become a human guinea pig. I test out a lifestyle, and then report on the experience.
So, for instance, a few years ago, I decided to write a book about following all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible for a year. This came about because I grew up with no religion at all. As I say in the book I wrote about the experience, I’m Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. Not Very. No offense. Great breadsticks.
But I wanted to learn about my heritage, and what to teach my kids. So I figured one way to find out about the Bible would be to dive in, and learn about it from the inside out. So I decided to follow all the rules. And there are hundreds of them.
I wanted to follow the famous ones. The Ten Commandments. Love your neighbor. Be Fruitful and Multiply. And by the way, I was fruitful and did multiply: I had twin boys during my year. So I take my projects very seriously.
But I also followed the lesser-known rules. The Bible says can’t shave the corners of your beard. I didn’t know where the corners were, so I let the whole thing grow. By the end of the year, I had some elaborate topiary attached to my chin. I don’t have a photo here, but to give you a sense of how I looked: I spent a lot of time at airport security.
Leviticus says to stone adulterers. So I figured I should at least try that. And I was able to stone one adulterer. I used small stones. Pebbles, really. So there were no injuries.
It was a fascinating year. Afterward, I stopped stoning adulterers and I shaved my beard. But the project changed my life for the better in many ways. For instance, gratitude. The Bible says that you should say thanks at every opportunity. So I try to be grateful for the hundreds of things that go right every day as opposed to focusing on the three or four that go wrong. I’m thankful this microphone is working.
I learned a lot about writing from the Bible. First, I learned the importance of proofreading. In 1631 in England, there was a famous edition Bible where they made a small typo. They left out one word in the seventh commandment. Happened to be an important word. The word was “Not.” So the commandment read “Thou SHALT commit adultery.”
You can imagine that the next day, all these English guys were going up to their neighbors’ wives and pointing at the passage. So, what do you think? It’s not my idea. It’s God’s. Art thou down to fornicate?
It was called the Wicked Bible, and its editor was sent to prison. So proofreading is no joke people.
The Bible has some other interesting writing advice. King Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 12:12 (the New Living Translation). “Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out.” I love this, because it is the first recorded instance of a writer complaining about his deadline. So I am proud to continue this biblical tradition from wise King Solomon.
In addition to the Bible project, I wrote another book about the year I spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. This came about because when I was a kid, my dad loved learning and reading. He thought he’d try read the ultimate book, the encyclopedia. He didn’t quite finish. He made it to the letter B. Around Bolivia. So I thought maybe I should finish the project and remove that black mark from our family history.
And I also learned a lot about writing from the Encyclopedia. It is packed with inspiring writer stories.
Just to give you one example: I read about an 18th Century poet named William Cowper. And William’s friend challenged him to write an epic poem about the most boring topic in the world: a sofa. A couch. So he did. And it was a huge hit. So my takeaway was, if you can write with enough passion and style, you can make any topic interesting. Even sofas.
It wasn’t all blue skies in the encyclopedia, though. I also learned a lot of disturbing facts about writers. You might have noticed, we are not the most well adjusted lot. For instance, Edgar Allen Poe. When he was 27, he got married…to his 13-year-old first cousin. Which I find as creepy as both the pit and the pendulum. He beat Jerry Lee Lewis by 100 years.
My most recent book is about my quest to be as healthy as possible. And in that book, I learned that writing a book about health is not healthy. In fact, writing any book is not healthy. For one thing, we’re seated most of the day. And sitting, as you might have read, is alarmingly bad for you.
There are articles in health magazines that say, “If you are reading this sitting down, you will die by the end of this sentence.” But hyperbole aside, it’s true. Sitting for extended periods of time is not healthy. It’s terrible for your heart and your metabolism.
So while writing the book, I started to get up every half an hour and walk around. And then I took it further and joined the treadmill desk movement. I got a treadmill and put my laptop on it, and wrote the book while walking. Took me about 1200 miles. The equivalent of New York to Little Rock Arkansas. I still use the treadmill desk. I love it. Keeps me alert.
There’s a growing club of other treadmill desk writers. I’m a friend of Rebecca Skloot, who wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And Rebecca and I have competitions to see who can take more steps in a day. And she is kicking my ass. 20,000 steps a day. She herself may well be immortal.
Now, treadmills aside, this is a bizarre time in the history of writing.
Creatively, I think it’s the most exciting time. We’ve got tons of outlets. Anyone can be a publisher. There are heaps of innovative ways to connect with readers. You can experiment with visuals and sounds. So, creatively, it’s very exciting.
Financially, not so exciting. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living at this. As you might have noticed.
But I’m hopeful that if we are bold and experimental, there will still be a bright future for writers. I thought I’d give you a couple brief tips about writing that I’ve learned from my experiments, with the hope that they will be helpful to you as well.
First, is the idea of being bold in your networking. Bold but smart. Last night, I came up with the phrase “Strategic Chutzpah.”
There was an example of this I learned in the encyclopedia. The poet Langston Hughes, when he was young, was a busboy at a hotel in Washington DC. And the famous poet Vaclav Havel came to stay at the hotel. And when Langston Hughes served him breakfast, he slipped some poems to Havel alongside the waffles. Actually don’t know if it was waffles, but everyone loves waffles, so I’m guessing. In any case, Langston Hugh’s bold move paid off. It’s how he was discovered.
I’m no Vaclav Havel, but something similar happened to me. I was writing my book about the Bible, and I got this email from a freshman at Brown. It was a sharp, well-researched, well-written email, and he said he wanted to be a writer. Which I thought was a questionable decision, but so be it.
This student said he was coming to New York over the summer, and would like to volunteer to be my assistant in his off hours from his job as a barista. Now, remember, I was following all the rules of the Bible. And interestingly, the Bible, in the Old Testament, does condone Hebrew slavery. Thankfully, slavery itself is illegal in the tri-state area. But I thought, what’s the closest legal thing to getting a slave? Getting an intern. Sort of a similar idea. Working for free.
So I said to this college student, okay, you can be my assistant, as long as you let me call you my slave. He said, all right.
And he came to work for me, and he was wonderful. He was a great researcher. He made Ezekiel bread, which is the type of bread they ate in biblical times.
At the end of the summer, I took him on a research trip to Jerry Falwell’s Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. And he was fascinated. On the way back, he said to me: “I have an idea. What if I transferred from Brown, the most liberal college in America, to Jerry Falwell’s college, the most conservative? Liberty University. And then I could write a book about it.” The idea would be his semester abroad in Evangelical-land.
I said, you know what? That’s a petty interesting idea. And I connected him with my agent, and he wrote great proposal. He sold the book, it came out a couple of years ago, and it’s really good. It’s balanced and nuanced, not a hatchet job. It shows both the good and the bad of this lifestyle.
His name is Kevin Roose, the book is The Unlikely Disciple. And now Kevin’s a superstar writer at New York magazine. So now I tell all interns. If you come work for me for free, and bake bread for me, you are guaranteed to get a book deal.
Point is, I wish I’d been as smart as Kevin when I was young. He didn’t just blanket the market with a bunch of form letters. He didn’t even go through alumni relations. He researched and targeted. And it worked. Strategic chutzpha.
Of course, there’s a fine line between strategic chutzpah and stalking. Kevin never crossed that line. But I just throw that out as a caveat.
Second, I recommend being bold with your schedule. Show your schedule who is boss. For a long time, I was at the mercy of my schedule. I would have no time in the day, because there was always a quasi-emergency that needed my attention right at that minute. Always emails, always calls.
And I was finding I had no time in the day to come up with ideas. But ideas are the lifeblood of our business now. Now more than ever we have to be entrepreneurs. We have to come up with our own projects. Because with a very few exceptions, editors aren’t going to assign us articles or books.
So what I do now: I try to allot 15 minutes a day to brainstorming new ideas. Turn off the internet, turn off the cell phone. Put some books or magazines around me, and just spin out ideas. And this has been really fruitful for me.
A lot of ideas come to you randomly, in the shower. But there’s also something to be said for making creativity more regimented. It sounds paradoxical. But it works. Because if you don’t, carve out time, the day will slip away as you deal with minutiae.
I once did an experiment about Unitasking. It was my quest to avoid multitasking. Because although multitasking may seem productive, it actually makes you less productive. It overloads the brain. It dumbs you down. So during this experiment, I put my iPhone in another room and literally tied myself to my desk chair.
You don’t have to go that far. It’s especially hard to tie yourself to a desk when you’re at a treadmill desk.
But I do recommend: Unitask on creativity once every day.
Third, Be bold in helping others.
The New York Times magazine recently ran a cover story saying that helping others is the key to business. It doesn’t hurt you. It helps. This is partly because if you help someone out, they may be in a position to help you out later.
I try to follow this philosophy. I fail often – I run out of time, for one thing – but I try. I have a bit of a reputation for being a blurb whore. First of all, I’m not getting paid. So I’m actually a blurb slut. But I do tend to blurb a lot.
And I got in trouble for this. In fact, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner tweeted a few months ago, “Half the crap galleys I get are blurbed by one human: AJ Jacobs His hashtag was: “#timeforanintervention”
And my agent and publisher did intervene. They called me and told me I had to take a vow of endorsement abstinence. So I have cut down, per their commands. I still do it sometimes, though. Because I think publishing is such a tough business, that why not provide any help I can.
Third, I recommend being bold in experimenting with new forms of media.
I’m still trying to follow this advice myself. It’s hard. I come from the days when you tried to get paid for your writing. So I was very reluctant to embrace twitter and other social media where you do it for free. But I’ve tried to change.
Because I think that twitter can actually help you get you new gigs and ideas if you use it right. You probably all have heard how Adam Mansbach first got the idea to do his bestselling book. He posted a joke on Facebook saying he was exhausted by his kids, and he was going to write a book called “Go the Fuck to Sleep.”
He was kidding. But all his friends said, no you should write that. That would be a great book. And it was. Also, I recently heard Baratunde Thurston talking about his book How to Be Black. And how it got its start as a conversation on Twitter.
So you’re not necessarily giving stuff away for free. You’re planting seeds that may yield actually money in the future.
Another form I’m trying to embrace is video. But I have very mixed feelings about it.
Let me tell you a quick story about the start of my career. For my first book, I sent a proposal to an agent. And he sent it to a publisher.
The agent calls me and says, “The publisher is very interested, they want to make a bid. They just want to see a picture.”
And I say, “A picture? What’s going on?” And my agent says, “Oh, they just want to make sure you don’t have two heads. So you can go on talk shows if you need to.”
So I say, “Okay.” And I go to Wal-Mart and have my photo taken with a fan blowing my hair. And I send the photo to my agent.
He calls back two days later. “I talked to the publisher and….they’re going to pass.”
And I’m like, “What? I’m not even good looking enough to be an AUTHOR?” I’m not trying to be a soap opera star. I’m trying to be an author! I mean, did Herman Melville have to do ab crunches and get get his hair highlighted? What is going on? The whole point of why I became a writer was to avoid other people.
As you can see, it’s still a bit of a sore point. But I won’t name the publisher. Crown. It was Crown Publishing.
But here’s the sad part: The publisher was actually ahead of its time. It’s become increasingly important that authors become presenters of their own work. And I don’t think you have handsome or beautiful, but I do think it’s more important now to be comfortable in front of people and the camera.
Because in the future, we’re going to have to make our money from different sources. And some of those might be live events. Appearances. We might have to be more like musicians, and make our salary partly from performing.
It’s not a trend I necessarily approve of. But it’s the reality of the marketplace. I’m nowhere near as skilled at this than other writers.
Some of you might have heard of John Green, the young adult author. He has produced a series of brilliant videos with his brother. And his online cult is in the millions. I encourage you to check those out.
If you’re not a natural like John Green, the trick is Fake it Till you Make it. You have to pretend you love being on camera. This is one of the big lessons from my Bible book. How much our behavior affects your attitude.
The founder of Habitat for Humanity – a man named Millard Fuller — had a great phrase: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” I think it’s so true. During the Bible book, I wanted to be more compassionate. So I forced myself to go visit a friend in the hospital. I tricked my mind. And I became a little more compassionate.
This applies to business as well. If you’re not feeling optimistic, just ask yourself what an optimistic person would do, and do that.
My final area of boldness: I try to encourage people to be bold with the truth. Especially about themselves.
Present your flaws. One of the best ways to bond with a reader is to open up about your flaws and render yourself vulnerable. The writing teacher Susan Shapiro says that she always tells her students to write about the most humiliating thing in their life. And it’s led to many articles and even book deals.
I prefer to talk about my own flaws. But if you do talk about other people’s flaws, I do have an important tip. Appeal to their vanity.
In my first book about reading the encyclopedia, my brother-in-law is my nemesis. He’s an interesting character. I think he’d be okay with me saying this: He’s a douchebag. He knows it. He’s fine with it.
He is the ultimate know-it-all. He went to Harvard, and he was always making fun of me for being ignorant. But when I wrote about him in the book, the first thing I mentioned was that he was good looking and had a full head of hair. And that’s all he focuses on.
So whenever you write about someone, talk about how handsome or beautiful they are, then you can say anything you want.
By the way, during that book, I went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And I got to the $32,000 question. So I called my brother in law, because he was a biology major in college. I thought, finally, he can come in handy. And guess what? He blew it.
It was a bittersweet moment. I humiliated myself on national television. But I brought him down with me. I still ask him for the $32,000 every time I see him.
And finally, I said that the theme of this was Boldness and Experimentation – with limits. And what I mean is, I think we should be bold in our methods. Bold in our topics. Bold with the truth. But we should not be too bold with our conclusions.
Or let me put it another way: We should be bold enough to show that reality is messy and complicated and never one-sided. Because the easy way is to make extreme, one-dimensional statements. That will get you attention and traffic on the internet. If you say, XYZ is the Worst Movie In the History of Americaa, or so-and-so is the most evil Politician in America, you will get clicks.
But life is complicated and subtle. Even my brother-in-law Eric has some wonderful qualities and I like hanging out with him. I believe there’s a hunger for people who can represent that complicated world in an entertaining, insightful — but balanced way.
But again, that’s just my opinion. It’s probably more subtle and complicated than that. Thank you. Keep writing!