The Process of Writing, or Why God Gives Me a Lego
I never intended to become a writer.
Somehow, through a progression of abnormal happenstance, I landed this as my vocation. And I mean vocation in the Latin sense: my calling.
I now write at least a dozen articles, or usually about 10,000 words, per month or more. Like a chain-smoker, I have no idea how I am doing this or why, and I have no idea if I will ever stop. I just keep doing it.
In third grade, I wrote a short-story called Topper the Mouse. It was filled with erudite prose and had a twistingly subversive plot, regrettably now lost to the canon of fine literature. I remember how my teacher had to lean against the blackboard as she sobbed with joy at my preternatural accomplishment. I can only assume those ten pages are now framed, one by one, in some elementary school library, surrounded by blue ribbons.
As a junior in high school, during a dark Stephen King period, I wrote stories about exposed viscera and severed limbs, haunted houses infested by serial killers, and junior high school dances. (For the record, I had no personal experience with the subject matter.) I was trying to shock my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, who looked exactly like Tina Fey, but it had the reverse effect: she pinned them to the bulletin board before class. It was my first experience getting “published” and gaining some notoriety.
In college, I co-created The Empty Mailbox Club Newsletter. This was a work of conceptual non-fiction, intended for people who don’t get a lot of mail. The articles were insipid and sarcastic, which is kind of hard to do. Eventually, we gained a readership of about 200 students, most of whom confused our periodical with one of those credit-card come-ons from Chase Bank or a threatening letter from a legal adviser. A friend of mine still has a binder of the published newsletters, which she is holding onto in case she needs to blackmail me or cause a public spectacle.
Then, in 2001, after spending a decade in the corporate world, I started freelancing. In those early days, I set up a temporary workstation in my bedroom, probably because I liked the view out the window or because I wanted an incredibly short commute. I was clueless about how to pitch a story idea. There were a few times when I decided to cold-call the managing editor at a magazine. The conversation usually went like this:
“Hello, this is John Brandon.”
“I’m a freelance writer. I noticed you had a story about smart cards last month. Have you ever thought about doing something on biometrics?”
“You know, security protocols – authentication?” I had spent the last ten years in Information Technology, so I specialized in gibberish.
“Not interested,” the editor would say, hanging up abruptly.
Undeterred, I took to spamming editors by sending them all one message in a blind copy but making it look ultra-personal.
“Hey there,” I’d start out. “Wondering if you are looking for any ideas for the magazine. Give me a call or write back. Hope yer having a great day!”
I figured by using the word “yer” I was adding some personality to my pitch. (I imagined this would cause the editor of Wired to become immediately interested in my ideas.) I didn’t mention the fact that I had never written an article before, unless you count that college newsletter. In fact, I had never even thought about writing an article. Typically, I’d drive up to Barnes & Noble and grab a few recent issues of a magazine. I’d read every word, front to back, and educate myself about the subject matter. Then, I would start spamming. If anyone replied, I’d send a few quick ideas. This went on for months. I had an airtight system: going to Barnes & Noble gave me a reason to buy books I didn’t need and expensive coffee I couldn’t afford.
Then, by some miracle or act of providence, an editor from a small mobile computing mag finally responded and said she was interested. Her name was Jessica. I frantically wrote a few pitches and clicked Send. She wrote back right away: she wanted to talk to me by phone, could I give her a call in a few hours?
I didn’t breathe for about four minutes. I was quickly going from “vacation” to “vocation” faster than AOL could process my e-mail.
I set a timer on my Mac to call her back later. When I called, she picked up on the first ring.
“So, I’m interested in your pitch on biometrics,” she said, sounding out each word in a thick New York accent.
“What?” I replied.
“As a feature – I’d need you to send me an outline today. Can you do that?”
Eventually, I responded.
“Sure, I can send you an outline for an article on biometrics,” I said.
Of course, I didn’t mention to her that I had no clear idea what I was going to say. I knew a little about fingerprint readers and I had seen the movie Minority Report. Somehow, that first article led to another, then a third. To my utter amazement, I’ve been writing for that magazine ever since – although my level of production has slowed in recent years.
Ever since then, I’ve been pounding out words on a keyboard faster than a butcher at a meat sale. I don’t know how this works. I know The Daily Beast had an article recently about how writing is like the opposite of woodworking: you have no clear picture of what you are going to make. You push forward in the hopes that you will make something, anything.
It’s like that for me, too. I can almost hear my own synapses firing as I type. I know I’m writing about a new app or the top three business hotels, and I have a clear picture of the ultimate purpose. In some cases, I have notes that help me construct what I want to say. Yet, quite honestly, for each of the 12,000 articles I’ve written in the past 12 years, I usually just start with the first sentence. Then, I write the second one. Eventually, I have a full page. This is not what they teach you in journalism school, but it works for me.
I’m sorry for making this graphic analogy in public, but it often feels like I’m puking up a lung. I feel the rumble in my stomach, an idea forms – the scent of something profound. Quite literally, I sometimes wonder if that first insight is just a hunger pain. Maybe I’m craving shrimp stir-fry or an egg sandwich, and I’ve confused this with journalism. I’ve been known to start speaking out loud when this happens, stirring an echo into a sentiment. You’d almost think I was writing about political maleficence and not about a touchscreen laptop or an event organizer app, but there’s always a faint echo at first: the laptop is made of magnesium. Other laptops are not made of magnesium. That might make a good lead. I need to find my MacBook.
I churn this over in my head like butter or Silly Putty. This all happens in a micro-second. Sometimes I think the idea was formed before I knew I had the idea, and that the process of writing started when I was browsing Buzzfeed.com. It’s like God handed me one piece of a Lego set, the one with the shining aura, and told me to do the rest. I have the Golden Nugget, now it is time to build. And this is exactly how it works, every time. I write the first sentence, and my brain starts to construct an elaborate set-piece: what will happen in the first paragraph, and the second? How will the first section end? What happens in the middle? I often go back and re-read this expulsion as though someone else wrote it. Where did that come from? Why did God hand me a Lego? I edit myself as though I’m in the third person.
The other really odd (and, frankly, unsettling) thing about this process is that it happens so amazingly fast. I’m not a gifted typist. But I can write a 3,000-word article in about 20 minutes. It is a race to make sure the Lego becomes something worthwhile. There are times when I am writing so fast and the thoughts are coming so quickly that the keyboard becomes a mangled clutter of keys, a rhythmic visceral pound. It’s a marvel to me. I have no idea why it all works this way. I have no idea why I’m able to do it. I have no insight or understanding into my own writing process. It just erupts.
And then it is done. I sit back and page through the finished piece, half in wonder. I usually add a few bolded headlines, make some light edits, and remove a few typos, but the article is almost always completely done in one sitting. The words you are reading right now were expunged this way. So was that article on biometrics. (For those who are interested in reading my first ever article, let me know – I have a link.) I can’t understand how or why this vocation found me. And I don’t think I ever will.