Laughing alone — Michael Lewis on writing

Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but does it have to be painful? The wife and children of best-selling author Michael Lewis often find him laughing alone in his office when he writes. 

Not for him the angst of Ernest Hemingway, who famously said

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

If it’s a choice between laughing or bleeding, I’ll take the former anytime. And in fact, with all due respect for Papa Hemingway, I think it’s writers who create the angst, not writing.

Anyway, back to Michael Lewis: You may recognize his name because of the very successful movies made from some of his books Moneyball, The Big Short, even The Blind Side. I haven’t read any of those books—that’s a long story for another time—but I did see Moneyball. Twice. In the same week.

Still, if his interview on the Freakonomics Radio podcast is any indication, he seems to have blossomed into the kind of writer whose work I would enjoy. And he laughs when he writes. What’s not to like about that?

Laughing alone - that's how Michael Lewis writes

Writing and laughing alone

Here’s an excerpt from the interview conducted by Stephen J. Dubner, a fine writer himself. He co-wrote the Freakonomics books with economist Steven D.  Levitt. (I added some emphasis for you):

DUBNER: So as a fellow writer, I want to ask you this: Reading your work is so pleasurable and easy, and I don’t mean that at all as a pejorative. I love the way you use language and words to talk about ideas. It’s an incredibly rare ability. But because it’s so pleasurable and easy to read, one might assume that the writing of these books is easy and perhaps pleasurable. Is it? Are you, Michael, any less tortured than the average writer?

LEWIS: Yes. It is pleasurable and easy. I hate to ruin your punchline, but actually what is hard for me is figuring out in the beginning what I want to say. I spend a lot of time gathering material and organizing the material before I sit down to write. I’d say three-quarters of the time is that. When the actual writing starts, it’s, for me, fun. It’s just fun. I mean, it’s fun and hard, but if it’s hard, it’s hard in a fun way.

And people like my wife, who has walked in on me while I’m writing — I write with headphones on that just plays on a loop the same playlist that I’ve built for whatever book I’m writing. And I cease to hear anything in the world outside of what I’m doing. And apparently I’m sitting there laughing the whole time. And so I think basically what I’m doing is laughing at my own jokes, and I wasn’t even aware of that. But people like my kids and my wife say that, “You’re sitting at your desk laughing all the time.”

My takeaways

In writing, as in painting, the prep work is the most painstaking—and the most important—part of the job.

Once you’ve got your research lined up and organized, you can keep your blood securely inside your body. Just write. And laugh—why not?

Because “it’s fun and hard, but if it’s hard, it’s hard in a fun way.” I’ve been writing lately about Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, and that sentence could have come straight from its pages.

If it’s hard and you hate it, stop doing it. Why turn yourself into an alcoholic and end up shooting yourself in the head? But if it’s hard and fun—well, then you’re onto something. So let yourself enjoy it. You might even find yourself laughing alone.

Trust yourself, trust your ideas: How to move forward

“What advice would you give your teenage self, as you were about to graduate from high school?”

I’m used to hearing this question asked of “your 30-year-old self,” trust is the only way to move forwardbut in this case my questioner was only 16. She was looking for advice she could use now. So I told her:

“Trust yourself.”

That’s actually the same advice I would give myself today. (I’m working on being smart enough to take it.)

Master speaking coach Victoria Labalme offers much the same advice in her TEDx talk:

“Trust the idea that leads to the idea.”

I love this. It acknowledges that not every idea we have will end up being worth pursuing. But every idea has the potential to lead us to another idea, and another, and eventually we’ll hit on one that resonates. All we need to do is trust in the process.

Trust -> Risk -> Move (Repeat)

Just about everything we do involves risk. But if we thought about it that way, we’d probably never get out of bed. (That has risks too, especially if you have a dog waiting for you to open the front door.)

Labalme encourages us to recognize that although we may feel unsteady, we have the capacity to move into the world “heart open” and do something we cannot do with the covers pulled over our heads: Live full and fulfilling lives. All we have to do (No, that really deserves quotation marks.) “All” we have to do is trust that the choices we make in the course of that living will lead us to wherever we need to go.

Simple.

No, of course it’s not simple. Not when every moment, every thought, every action provides an opportunity to second-guess ourselves.

So as new year approaches, I’m working to embrace the choices I’ve made. You might like to try that too; you never know where it will lead.

And since I’m a writer, I invite you to celebrate and embrace the writing you do. It may only be 15 minutes a day—as the folks working with me in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge have committed to. (Today’s their first day; give them a virtual high five.)

The first draft might be rough, but that’s the job of a first draft. The idea might not be exactly right, maybe the perspective is off. Maybe all it needs is a little adjustment. Or maybe—and you can decide this after you set it aside for a day or two and return with fresh eyes—maybe it really isn’t a great idea. But maybe, as Victoria Labalme suggests, this idea will lead you to a great idea. All you need to do is keep following the breadcrumbs. Whether you like what you write or you hate it: Keep doing it.

And enjoy the journey. At least you’re moving. Which is, my scientist friends will confirm, the only way to go forward.

Neil Pasricha’s “Do Circle”: Happiness and writing

In his book The Happiness Equation, Neil Pasricha writes about the linear way most of us approach a new task: We can do it; we want to do it; so we do it.

Pasricha argues that removing logic from this line can make us happier. After all, if we only do things we already know we can do, how can we explore or grow?

Neil Pasricha's "Do Circle"
illustration by Neil Pasricha from The Happiness Equation

So he takes the same elements but arranges them in a circle. “Do” sits at the 12 o’clock position, so it seems a logical starting place. By doing, we learn that we “Can Do” and so we “Want to Do” this new thing even more. And so the cycle repeats. But really, you can start anywhere and end anywhere. Or not end at all. It’s up to you.

Accomplishment generates happiness. More doing = more happiness. And who can argue with that outcome?

Neil Pasricha’s “Do Circle” and Writing

So you want to write something? Pasricha describes the linear-thinking approach to the task:

“Want to write a book? I’ll take a writing course to learn how. Then I’ll find the perfect coffee shop to get inspired. Then I’ll write a masterpiece.”

Um, no.

I mean, yes, you can study—you should study writing. But don’t wait for someone to certify you as a “good writer” before you launch into it. And by all means go to the coffee shop when you need a freshly ground espresso. But don’t fetishize your workplace.

I remember reading about one author—I wish I could remember her name—who wrote her first novel on her toddler’s bed, barricaded in his room, during the hours he thought she was at work. As I recall, she and the nanny had worked out a good-bye ritual for the kid to send her off to her job, then the nanny distracted him in the laundry room while mom sneaked back inside the apartment.

That woman was a writer. She had a story to tell. She would have written her novel standing up in a closet if she had to. I hope she had a good chiropractor.

And if you’re a member of LinkedIn, check out this piece by Olivia Barrow, called

“The hidden spots where top writers do their best work: in the pool, on the lawn mower, or while waiting for a bathroom”

So how do you become a writer—whether or not you have (or need) a nanny or a lawnmower? You write. Here’s Neil Pasricha again:

“Write one page. Even if it sucks. The fact you did it will convince you that you can do it. Then you’ll want to do it! Why? Because we love doing things that confirm our belief that we’re able to do them.”

Confirm your belief: Write

Start writing. Right now. Just pull up a document and write for five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good; just do it.

And then join us in Jumpstart 2017: The 5×15 Writing Challenge. You write for five days in a row, for at least 15 minutes a day. Complete the challenge and you get an unparalleled sense of satisfaction that will make you want to write more. The perfect recipe for happiness. Oh, and when you complete the challenge I’ll donate $15 in your name to a wonderful charity. Click on over here for the details and grab some happiness in time for the new year.

Grateful: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone

As we celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. today, we commemorate a day when people from different races and cultures came together in friendship and support.

Of course, that was nearly 400 years ago.

Quite a lot has changed since then. We’ve moved forward: and here I’m thinking about Turducken, a delicacy I have still not had the opportunity to sample. And we’ve taken some giant steps backwards. Instead of sharing turkey and maize (or even the ubiquitous green bean casserole), authorities in North Dakota kicked off Thanksgiving week for their Native American neighbors with water cannons and tear gas. So yes, times have changed.

Still, even in the darkest times I look for reasons to be grateful. And one of the things I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving is something that might help you find gratitude in your own life.

The Five-Minute Journal

About six months ago, I bought myself this simple little book: The Five-Minute Journal. It's Thanksgiving every day with this book

Every morning when I wake up, it prompts me to find three things I’m grateful for, articulate three actions I could take to “make today great,” and write a short affirmation for myself. Every evening before I go to sleep, I fill in the blanks for three “amazing things that happened” during the day. And reflect on one thing I could have done to make the day even better. It’s pretty simple. And surprisingly powerful.

Writing in the journal gives me permission celebrate my wins and the assorted joys of life. I find I’m happier overall, less inclined to focus on the negative.

Of course I also have some dark days, days when the “amazing things” list looks like:

  • I walked the dog.
  • I drank some tea.
  • I kept breathing.

It would be hard to find smaller accomplishments than those. But—hey—I got through the day. And tomorrow I’ll turn the page and hope for something better.

I hope for something better for all of us this Thanksgiving. Whether or not you buy the book, putting your gratitude into words is an excellent practice. Just one small way writing can heal.


Have you been wishing you could improve your writing skills? Wishes can come true. Register for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate,” Wednesday November 30th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

#Happiness

One of my neighbors on WordPress alerted me to a thing called the “Happiness tag.” 

The deal is, I write about some things that make me happy and then tag fellow bloggers to do the same. Seems like a worthy endeavor, so here goes:

    1. Happiness is…five kinds of crayons

2. Happiness is…having interesting work to do (even if you have to work through the Wimbledon finals).

3. Happiness is…a decent pizza place just five minutes away.

4. Happiness is…practicing “15 minutes of creativity” every single day. Yes, even when you have to work through the Wimbledon finals.

5. Happiness is…connecting so deeply with a group of friends that you don’t need to see them for years, and then getting to spend real time reconnecting with them all over again.

6. Happiness is…Cape Cod Bay in the late-fall sunshine.

7. Happiness is…knitting on the sofa with the pooch and the spousal unit.

And how could I forget?

8. Happiness is…Stephen Sondheim

Okay, your turn. What makes you happy?