I keep thinking I should stop subscribing to the New Yorker. The magazines have a tendency to pile up when I’m busy because they come every week. But then I read an article that reminds me why I subscribe.
That particular piece in this week’s issue is “Structure” by John McPhee. I was lucky enough to take a writing class with McPhee at Princeton and have always enjoyed his writing. This piece was on writing itself. How do you put together the structure for a really long bit of non-fiction? As he notes, structure matters. When you have the right road map, the right themes, “the rest could take care of itself.” When you don’t have the right structure, all your writing pretty much comes to naught. It won’t make sense. It won’t work. It is that horror that he describes thinking about in the opening paragraphs, as he’s lying on a picnic table for two straight weeks, coming inside only to eat and sleep, desperately trying to figure out how to write one of his early New Yorker pieces about the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. He’s got “enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.” The piece will ultimately be 5000 sentences (not words, sentences!) “but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one.”
Finally, after torturing himself like this for days straight, McPhee realizes that an older gentleman named Fred Brown, who lived in the forest, was connected to most of the other topics he had researched about the Pine Barrens. His encounters with Brown could serve as the thread through which to introduce everything else. It was a moment of clarity. “Obvious as it had not seemed, this organizing principle gave me a sense of a nearly complete structure,” McPhee writes, “and I got off the table.”
McPhee is a somewhat reserved sort, but I’m guessing he didn’t just walk off that table. After two weeks, it is quite likely he was jumping up and down. Or at least that’s what I would do. If you’re new around here, I’ve been working on a trilogy of 10,000-word ebooks on how successful people spend their time. First, we learned what they did before breakfast. My report on how they spend their weekends came out December 31. Now, I’m deep in the weeds on reporting what they do at work. This last book, unlike the others, has given me total fits. It was originally due in December, but I decided that was impossible. My editor and I moved the date to January 11. This past Sunday, I asked for more time, something I almost never do. Now it’s due late next week as we crash toward the April publication.
Part of the problem is that what people do at work is an incredibly broad topic. If you are a professor, for instance, you spend your days differently than a dentist does. A corporate vice president inhabits a different universe than someone who owns a chain of small boutiques. Or you could be a race car driver. The point is that while getting up early to do something useful is a pretty universally applicable idea, workplace time management is a lot more varied.
Then there is the other problem that I have a lot of material. I’ve been writing a 3x/week career and time management blog for BNET and then CBS MoneyWatch for more than 2 years now. A few years before that, I wrote career profiles of scientists and mathematicians for a year, weekly, for ScientificAmerican.com (many of those people were re-interviewed as I was writing 168 Hours). There are a lot of people I can call up and say, hey, could I re-purpose some of our original interview, and get some fresh quotes? There are a lot of studies and statistics and such out there.
So…where to start? I tried. I wrote about 10,000 words, but not the 10,000 words I wanted to share with anyone. I came up with guidelines, but then asked myself, if I gave this to, say, my kids’ teachers, a choreographer, a fireman, the clerk at the grocery store, would these people find it useful? And finally, there is the sad reality that some work is just…dull. No one likes to be in meetings, so why would you want to read about them?
I had scheduled a few more interviews with high profile people over the past few weeks. Some worked out and some didn’t. It came down to the last one. But on the phone Monday, everything fell into place. A 15-minute interview turned into an hour. I got off the phone and started pacing around my office. Then I had to go for a run. There is a moment in any big project when you finally know that success is possible, and that moment of clarity shoots through you like a bolt of lightning. I finally had my themes.
It has still been a lot of work, writing a new 10,000 words over these past three days, but it feels different to write 10,000 words when you know where you’re going, vs. 100 words when you don’t.
Have you ever experienced such a moment of clarity on a big project? How did that come about?
Photo courtesy flickr user Jose Jara Ramirez