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.

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