The noun and the verb


Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.

“Forget about being a Writer,” says novelist Ann Packer. “Follow the impulse to write.”

Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).

Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting than just wanting the noun.

10 things I learned while writing my last book

working in the garage
My third book Show Your Work! came out a year ago. I kept a diary while writing the book, but it’s too painful and embarrassing to share in full. So here’s a list of lessons I learned while writing it, adapted from a series of tweets

1. Don’t try to write a book while taking care of a newborn baby.

I drastically underestimated how much physical, mental, and spiritual energy it requires. (Sarah Ruhl writes really well about the distractions of parenting.) Those first two months are just brutal — take them off if you can. Keep a pocket notebook and take little notes for later.

2. Write outside of the house.

Get an office, or go to the coffee shop, or ride the train around. At the very least, find a room in your house with a door that closes. Set up a bliss station.

I wrote Show at the top of the stairs in an open loft, wearing headphones to try to block out the cries of the baby. Let me tell you: Headphones are not a replacement for a shut door.

3. Stop researching, start writing.

“There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching,” says David McCollough. “There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.”

4. Once you’re in the middle of writing the book, talk about the book as little as possible.

I’m an extreme extrovert, which is really great after I write a book and I have to go out into the world and talk to people about it, but not so great when I need to sequester myself long enough to actually get some real writing done.

I do most of my thinking “out loud,” which means that ideas don’t really come to me until I’ve expressed them. If I express them through speech, I’m less likely to turn around and say them in writing. (This chart might help.)

5. Stick to an outline until you’re between drafts.

This has screwed me so many times. Don’t try to change structure during a draft. Power through until the draft is done. (Get The Clockwork Muse, which covers this subject brilliantly.)

6. A book can be a pain-in-the-ass to write as long as it isn’t a pain-in-the-ass to read.

People are surprised when I tell them what a horrible time I had writing this book. Which means I did my job!

7. Your partner or spouse is so, so sick of you.

Seriously. Do something nice for him/her, or at the very least, don’t talk about your book. Schedule regular time together when you don’t talk about work.

8. Don’t use childbirth as a metaphor.

There is only one way that writing a book is like giving birth: After it enters the world, the pain is mostly over, but the work has only begun.

9. Don’t squander your momentum.

After you finish one book, start writing something else as soon as you can. Chain-smoke.

If you’re truly burnt out, quit for a while. Read. Travel. Talk to people. Go away so you can come back.

10. Know what you’re getting into.

Best case scenario: You write a good book that sells. Then everyone will want you to write another one. “What next?” is a never-ending question for the writer… so beware!

You can get a copy of Show Your Work! right here.

The So What? Test

The So What Test

The act of sharing is one of generosity—you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.

I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.”

It’s a lesson I never forgot.

Always be sure to run everything you share with others through The “So What?” Test. Don’t overthink it; just go with your gut.

If you’re unsure about whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours. Put it in a drawer and walk out the door. The next day, take it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself, “Is this helpful? Is it entertaining? Is it something I’d be comfortable with my boss or my mother seeing?”

There’s nothing wrong with saving things for later. The SAVE AS DRAFT button is like a prophylactic—it might not feel as good in the moment, but you’ll be glad you used it in the morning.

This post is an excerpt from my book, Show Your Work!

The work goes on


Judith brought this newspaper clipping to the little book release party my wife threw for me after my first book came out. An artist herself, she blacked out the caption of the photograph to read: “create more a    r  t.”

I had it hanging on my bulletin board for a few years, then took it down and threw it in a box when I moved my office out to the garage.

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Borrow a kid

owen at the umlauf sculpture garden

If you have a child of two or three, or can borrow one, let her give you beginning lessons in looking.
—Corita Kent and Jan Steward, Learning By Heart

This weekend we visited the Umlauf Sculpture Garden here in Austin. Towards the end of our visit, I spent at least half an hour at the very edge of the garden with my back to the beautiful art and scenery, watching the cars whiz by on Robert E. Lee Road.

Going to an art museum with a two-year-old will make you rethink what’s interesting and what’s art. (After all, what are cars but fast, colorful, kinetic sculptures?) This, of course, should be the point of museums: to make us look closer at our everyday life as a source of art and wonder.

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People you follow


When you discover a new-to-you piece of culture that you want to investigate, say, a new artist or a TV show, it can be hard to know where to start.

Most of us jump on Wikipedia and go from there, but these days I like to head over to Twitter.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 9.00.19 PM

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How to read more

my reading desk

I read 70+ books this year, a new personal record. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Throw your phone in the ocean. (Or, keep it in airplane mode.)
  2. Carry a book with you at all times.
  3. Have another book ready before you finish the one you’re reading. (Make a stack of books to-read or load up your eReader.)
  4. If you aren’t enjoying a book or learning from it, stop reading it immediately. (Flinging it across the room helps give closure.)
  5. Schedule 1 hour of non-fiction reading during the day. (Commutes, lunch breaks, and any contained period of idle time work well.)
  6. Go to bed 1 hour early and read fiction. (It will help you sleep.)
  7. Keep a reading log and share your favorite books with others. (They will send you even more books to read.)

I posted this list on Twitter, and tweaked it based on all the responses. It was inspired by Ryan Holiday.

If you liked this post, you’ll like my books.

Above: My reading desk, designed to resemble a library study carrel.