No Time to Write?

How I Wrote Five Novels While Commuting - WSJ

Most people who write yearn for more of one thing. No, it’s not inspiration, or an uber-quiet office, or a better agent, or a more fabulous publisher. It is one thing alone: time!

That is why I was drawn to a recent article by Ken Wells, “How I Wrote Five Novels While Commuting.” It inspired me to make time. Here is how he begins:

When I took a job in New York City at the age of 44, I had work I loved, a growing family and a secret disappointment. I had always wanted to write a novel.

For eight years I’d dragged a manuscript around and fitfully pecked away at it. But mornings with my wife and young daughters were busy, and my job as an editor and writer at this paper was demanding. By the time I slogged home after eight to 10 hours at the office, I was usually too beat to write another sentence.

How would I ever find the time and energy to write?

My move came with a commute. I was captive to a train that shuttled me back and forth from my home in suburban New Jersey, to Hoboken, N.J., where I hopped a ferry to my job in lower Manhattan. The train ride was about 50 minutes each way.

A week or two into my commute, two things had become clear: I would be spending a lot of time on the train. And the ride was pretty comfortable. One day it hit me: Could I write a novel on the train?

I started doing calculations. If I subtracted, say, 10 weeks a year for vacation, business travel and sick days, that meant I’d have 42 weeks, or 210 weekdays a year, to work on my novel. If I could write two single-spaced pages a day, or about 1,000 words—which didn’t seem that ambitious—surely at the end of 12 months I could end up with close to a 400-page manuscript.

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Tightrope

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Every so often, a book comes along that makes you think. And when one makes you think about the country you live in, it gets my attention.

That is why I was drawn to a review of a new book, “Tightrope, Americans Reaching for Hope,”
by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

The review alone took me to places In America I have never been and knew nothing about. Here is how it begins:

As the United States awakens from one of its foundational myths — that we are a democracy without castes — the official record of our times is being written largely by people born to socioeconomic advantage. This irony, in which those on the fortunate end of historic wealth inequality attempt to chronicle a populist movement produced by that inequality, often results in dubious journalism.

Even well-intentioned urban, coastal, college-educated scribes commit obliviously condescending word choices (“flyover country”), illogical assumptions (everyone in red states voted for Trump) and variations on poverty porn, in which subjects are conveyed as helpless and joyless (“observe this sorry case in Appalachia”). To those who know something about, say, rural poverty firsthand, earnest nonfiction narratives understandably may read as voyeuristic studies predicated on the dangerous idea that we are a nation of two essentially different kinds of people.

In fact, we are a nation of essentially similar people shaped by vastly different circumstances of place, wealth, education and culture. Those best able to document our socioeconomic divide with humility and accuracy typically have occupied more than one class, remain connected to the one they left and attribute any upward mobility to good fortune rather than to personal exceptionalism.

One such journalist is the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who grew up tending sheep on a small family farm in rural Oregon in the 1960s and ’70s. In “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” he and the journalist Sheryl WuDunn, who is also his wife, offer a litany of stories from across the country, revealing the structural causes of countless so-called personal failures among the working poor. Most of these stories come from Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill, population 1,105.

Intrigued? You can read the full review here

What If?

For Duty and Honor - CreateSpace Cover - (2018-02-19)

I write about things that make me wonder. “What Ifs” come naturally from both my military experience as well as my current work in the high-tech world. Here is what inspired For Duty and Honor:

What if the Islamic Republic of Iran is killing Americans in terrorist attacks and other actions and the United States is not taking action? And what is a carrier strike group commander decides to create an incident that has Iran’s fingerprints and uses this as an excuse to extract his own vengeance on Iran? Can he be stopped?

And here is the review from Wings of Gold:

What If?

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I write about things that make me wonder. “What Ifs” come naturally from both my military experience as well as my current work in the high-tech world. Here is what inspired The Coronado Conspiracy:

“What if the most senior officers in the United States military are so dissatisfied with the President that they concoct a scheme to have the President direct a major military operation, and then have that operation fail in order to drive the President out of office?”

And here is the review from Wings of Gold:

Life Changers

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I am always searching for “THE” book, and perhaps one that will change my life or at least how I look at the world.

I felt like I hit the mother-lode when I opened the New York Times and found this headline:

“The Book That Changed My Life: Our readers offer a heartfelt tribute to the power of the written word, paying homage to Orwell, Thoreau, Betty Friedan, Julia Child and Dr. Seuss, to name but a few.”

Here is how it began:

We asked readers to pick a book that influenced how they think, act or look at the world. The more than 1,300 responses cited hundreds of books, running the gamut from “Go, Dog. Go!” to Kierkegaard.

Many of the readers described how a book guided their spiritual development (“Be Here Now,” “The Violent Bear It Away”) or helped them through a difficult time in their lives (“The Color Purple,” “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” “Being Mortal”).

For others, a book changed how they looked at food (“Diet for a Small Planet,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”) or war (“Catch-22,” “Johnny Got His Gun”) or love (“Normal People”). And for some, one book led to a lifelong love of the written word.

We thank one of our regular letter writers, William Cole, for suggesting this idea. It clearly struck a chord with our readers.

SUSAN MERMELSTEIN and THOMAS FEYER, Letters Editors

Want to discover which books we are talking about? You can read the full piece here

The Innovation Bible

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Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard professor whose groundbreaking 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” outlined his theories about the impact of what he called “disruptive innovation” on leading companies and catapulted him to superstar status as a management guru, died last month.

“The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which The Economist called one of the six most important business books ever written, was published during the technology boom of the late 1990s. It trumpeted Professor Christensen’s assertion that the factors that help the best companies succeed — listening responsively to customers, investing aggressively in technology products that satisfied customers’ next-generation needs — are the same reasons some of these companies fail.

These corporate giants were so focused on doing the very things that had been taught for generations at the nation’s top business schools, he wrote, that they were blindsided by small, fast-moving, innovative companies that were able to enter markets nimbly with disruptive products and services and grab large chunks of market share. By laying out a blueprint for how executives could identify and respond to these disruptive forces, Professor Christensen, himself an entrepreneur and former management consultant, struck a chord with high-tech corporate leaders.

Want more? You read the full piece here

A World Without Work

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Full disclosure, I work at a U.S. government laboratory where we deal with high technology every day. I am enthralled by what technology can do to make the world a better place.

But I am also mindful of the dangers technology can pose and especially of the public’s fear of new technology, especially when it comes to taking our jobs.

That is why I was drawn to a recent book review ofA WORLD WITHOUT WORK
Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond.” Here is how it begins:

Fearing that a newfangled technology would put them out of work, neighbors broke into the house of James Hargreaves, the inventor of the spinning jenny, and destroyed the machine and also his furniture in 18th-century England. Queen Elizabeth I denied an English priest a patent for an invention that knitted wool, arguing that it would turn her subjects into unemployed beggars. A city council dictated that Anton Möller, who invented the ribbon loom in the 16th century, should be strangled for his efforts.

But centuries of predictions that machines would put humans out of work for good — a scenario that economists call “technological unemployment” — have always turned out to be wrong. Technology eliminated some jobs, but new work arose, and it was often less grueling or dangerous than the old. Machines may have replaced weavers, but yesterday’s would-be weavers are now working jobs their forefathers couldn’t have imagined, as marketing managers and computer programmers and fashion designers. Over the past few centuries, technology has helped human workers become more productive than ever, ushering in unprecedented economic prosperity and raising living standards. The American economy, for instance, grew 15,241-fold between 1700 and 2000.

 

Want more? You can read the full article here

The Art of War

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Given the multiple conflicts going on the world TODAY, not the least of which is the friction between the United States and Iran, the subject of war is likely on everyone’s minds.

At times like these, it is useful to look beyond the often-shrill headlines to try to deep-dive into the essence of warfare.

That is why I was drawn to a recent book review of a new translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu. The article title, “Well, If You Insist On Going To War,” drew me in. It begins:

The most electric war plan in semi-recent American literature appears in “A Run Through the Jungle,” a story by the much-missed Thom Jones. Here is that plan in its entirety: “Infiltrate Hanoi, grab Uncle Ho by the goatee, pull off his face and make a clean escape.” Because warfare is rarely so simple, books of strategy are consulted.

The most venerable of these, alongside “On War” (1832), by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” written some 2,500 years ago. There have been many translations of “The Art of War,” and a new one, by Michael Nylan, will not be the last. It’s a book that seems perpetually useful because it’s a work of philosophy as much as tactics. Doves and hawks (even vultures) can approach it for meaning. The book suggests that the real art of war is not to have to go to war.

I’ve read Sun Tzu several times, in different translations. I’m not sure why I return to it: It’s short, it’s a classic, it’s there. The book’s lessons in deception seem not to stick with me. In my mind, I’m the least devious person in the world, my motives there for all to see. But that is what a devious person would say, isn’t it?

You can read the full article here

Military-Civilian Friction

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In the midst of the current conflict with Iran, our attention often falls on the commander-in-chief and the general officers who work for him.

There have been more retired military officers working in key positions in the current administration than in recent memory.

Many wonder why that is, as well as how it is contributing to the security and prosperity of our nation. That’s why I was drawn to a recent book review, “Military Delusions.” Here is how Eliot Cohen’s review of Peter Bergen’s book begins:

Luckily, no one makes us read a book that covers all of our bad moments in the dental chair — the tut-tutting about a cracked tooth, the anesthetic-charged needle sliding into soft tissue, the high-pitched whine of the drill, the grating sound of enamel being ground away, the bleeding gum, the anodyne assurance that there are only four more visits left before the restoration is complete. Unfortunately, Peter Bergen has decided to have his readers relive the Trump foreign and national security policy equivalent in this account of the first three years of the current administration.

There it all is — the spectacular flameouts, from semitragic former generals ending up in court to harlequins flitting through White House corridors; the kooky theories of “The Fourth Turning,” which informed Stephen Bannon’s understanding of American history; the impulsive hires of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the national security adviser H. R. McMaster, and their humiliating tweet-singed send-offs; the jumped-up mediocrities incapable of writing a memo and the multimillionaires on the make with schemes to outsource the Afghan war; the birther conspiracy theories about Barack Obama; Kellyanne Conway’s invocation of the Bowling Green massacre and alternative facts; the constant expletive-laden discourse in which major American foreign policy decisions were conceptualized by the president as variations on the Anglo-Saxon monosyllable for sexual intercourse; the contempt for human rights, loyalty to allies and fidelity to covenants. And all this before the Ukrainian quid pro quo.

You can read the full article here

Future News

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Occasionally, it’s worth looking back to see how people thought things would turn out.

Years ago I read a piece, “Novelists Predict Future With Eerie Accuracy.”

Fast forward: Were they right? See for yourself. Here is part of the article

The dirty little secret of speculative fiction is that it’s hard to go wrong predicting that things will get worse. But while avoiding the nihilism of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” in which a father and son wander a hopeless post-apocalyptic moonscape, a number of recent books foresee futures that seem more than plausible as the nation’s ambient level of weirdness rises.

Albert Brooks, the actor and director, brought out “2030,” in which the nation’s economy is sent into a spin by seemingly good news: cancer is cured. The bad-news twist: the resulting drain on national resources by an aging population that no longer conforms to the actuarial tables and continues to consume resources at baby-boomer rates, and a rather literal twist on the notion of intergenerational warfare. “I chose not to go too far,” Mr. Brooks said. “I liked having more present in my future.”

In “Ready Player One,” the novelist Ernest Cline extrapolates from the ripples that rising energy prices and climate change send through the economy, and gives us a future where the suburbs die off and many people are packed into in high-rise urban trailer parks, spending their days on an increasingly addictive Internet instead of facing the quotidian squalor. Readers who spend so much time issuing updates via Twitter, Facebook and Google+ that they have forgotten what their spouses look like might see themselves reflected in Mr. Cline’s funhouse mirror. “I did try to envision it as a possible future,” Mr. Cline said. “I don’t see it as a future we’re necessarily headed for.”

Want to know what’s ahead – keep reading!

Want more? You can read the full article here