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Friday, April 1, 2016

Why Haven’t You Written a Book?

It is easier than you think

Maybe it is time for you to write a book. Publishing has never been easier. You might sell some copies. You might make a difference in someone’s life. Regardless, being an author amounts to a redefinition of who you are and what you have to offer the world. In some ways it is an act of bravery. There’s no better time than now, provided you are ready and have something to say. 

Here’s a history of my own book writing. [This article is a chapter from another book called Why Haven’t You Read This Book, edited by Isaac Morehouse]

I used to think that books were for big shots. They were surely exhausting to write. They had to say an epic and stunning thing. They had to shoot for best-seller status. They should include a tremendous number of citations, for “credibility.” They had to be vetted. I also avoided putting one together out of fear. Once something is in a book, you have to be responsible for the contents. Books define you. I didn’t want to be defined. So I waited, much too long.

Finally in 2009, I did it. I discovered a theme in my writings. That theme was creative noncompliance with prevailing social, cultural, and political diktat. In article after article, I had (inadvertently) chronicled the many small ways in which we can be rebels in our own lives. I found that I was comfortable with that theme because it was highly personal — something over which I had unique knowledge.

No, there was no big idea, no plan for the world economy, no gigantic philosophical message, no earth-shattering insight. But there was an interesting bit of inspiration here, and the essays were all rather engaging.

I collected them, edited them, tied them together, and there it was. The result was suitable. Maybe someone would care. In any case, by putting it out there I could close one chapter in my life. That sounded appealing.

The next step was to find the title. That was the hard part. It tooks months of reflection. I tried dozens but nothing was quite right. Then I recall the first moment in my adult life when I gained some sense that I could live dangerously in small ways. It was an early morning, talking to an older gentleman in the deep South. He poured me a cup of coffee and asked if I wanted bourbon in it. I was stunned because I had somehow come to believe, and I don’t know why, that morning drinking was something that one should never do, no matter what.

This was a revelation to me, and since this book was deeply personal, I decided to highlight the event in the title. Hence: Bourbon for Breakfast. The book appeared, and I had no inkling of what would happen next. It sold well, very well. And then, out of nowhere, I became known for it. The title defined my life. The essays in there — many simple life hacks and various reflections on the problems of government regulation — went viral. It inaugurated something else that I did not expect. I became a public personality. I had never been that before, and this did indeed redefine others’ perceptions of me and those of myself and my role.

I went from being a code geek and editor in a small office, a life in which no one knew my name, to being a public figure.It was all due to the book. Many others have followed, including It’s a Jetsons World, Beautiful Anarchy,, and Bit by Bit, among three others, along with about 150 book introductions and many chapters in books. In the years that followed, my career took a completely different turn. I went from being a code geek and editor in a small office, a life in which no one knew my name, to being a public figure. It dated from that one book. 

Why did my first book succeed? It had a good title. It had a good distribution network. The content was readable. Above all else, I think the reason that the book did well was that it was personal. That’s another way of saying that it was original — and because no one else has lived your life, the personal is necessarily original. I had managed to embrace the one thing that I did really well, which is live a slightly eccentric life in light of an oddball political philosophy, and I put it out there for people to read. I had not attempted to do more than that.

What should your book be about?

Leaving the think-tank world, I entered into the for-profit publishing business in which I sorted through many manuscripts to consider them for publication. I was always happy to get these, and I would congratulate anyone who finished a book for publication. But I rejected most of them. A surprising number of these books were of the same sort: they were sweeping introductions to some gigantic topic like human liberty. They attempted to start at the beginning and go to the end. They were didactic, always trying to school the reader in what he or she should think.

I was polite as possible with such people but, in one way or another, I ended up telling the writer the same thing: no one wants to read this. This book is a duplicate of information anyone can find on the Internet in a matter of minutes. It is a summary of what you learned from Googling. It adds no value to the world. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing, and it’s fine and not awful to go ahead. But there is something inauthentic — purely derivative and notably bloodless — about the structure and message of such a book. It will not accomplish what you want it to accomplish. The truth is that no one needs yet another general introduction to libertarianism. So sorry.

If not that, what should your book be about? In some sense, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is real, not affected, not a put-on, not a phony attempt to sound like someone other than who you are. Books I would like to read are about real things: the underground history of real life in high school; the truth about the Greek system in college; what it is like to have your first job; experiences in dealing with extended family and their expectations. Fears. Hopes. Adventures. Whatever. The story line doesn’t matter so much as its authenticity.

Notice that all my suggestions here are autobiographical. All truly excellent first books are autobiographical. It’s the way writers get their feet wet. Only later do they venture into more abstract areas. First you need to train yourself to write what you are absolutely certain is the truth, as much as you can know the truth. Once you do that, you can extend that model outward. Taking that first step is the key. You need to come to believe that what you think about something that you know really does matter.

In fact, take a look at this chapter. I was assigned an essay about book writing. I could have begun with a big theory, a list of dos and don’ts, a mighty essay on the history of books, or whatever. If I had done that, you probably would have stopped reading by now. By choosing the tactic of laying out my personal story, confessing some vulnerabilities that you share, you felt engaged and you kept reading. There is a lesson here.

There is always something vulnerable about this kind of writing. You feel it as you do it. Maybe you feel a bit squeamish. Even shy. This is good. The reader will feel that too and become sympathetic to your voice. To be a reader is to be a bit of a voyeur of another person’s inner life. As a writer, you need to be prepared to share that life. It doesn’t have to be about you overtly, but it should draw from that which you know best, and that means yourself.

Fear of the reader

In my experience the hardest thing for any writer to overcome is fear of the reader’s reaction. You don’t know who is going to be reading. Is it mom? Your professor from college? Your boss? Your social circle? Your pastor? You are a different person to each of these groups. When you write a book, you are only one person to all these people. Which person do you want to be? Whom do you want to impress? Just thinking about this creates terrible anxieties. People sit in front of blank computer screens all day just turning such issues over in their minds.

How do you overcome that fear of the audience? It really is a fear of yourself, of not being able to find and settle on your voice. Deciding on that takes some serious personal reflection. You need to commit — not for all time, but just for this one time as you write. You can change later. We all mature and grow. But for this one book, you need to find yourself. Sometimes imagining a single reader can help you do that. A friend, a family member, a beloved mentor, a protege, a younger person setting out on a similar life path. Maybe that audience you imagine doesn’t really exist, and you create it just for the purpose of this book. That works too. But you will need to settle on it and stick with it for the duration.

What about writer’s block? What happens when you just can’t think of anything to add, or anything to say?What about writer’s block? What happens when you just can’t think of anything to add, or anything to say? I once asked the great economist Henry Hazlitt about this. His response was that he could never afford to have writer’s block any more than a bicyclist can have pedaler’s block. It was just something he did and had to do every day. He would not allow himself not to write. That’s an interesting way to think about it.

And yet, let us be realistic. We do run out of ideas. The words do stop flowing suddenly, and we get stuck. How to fix that problem? I often use external objects and experiences to kick up my creativity. I look outside and focus on one thing that is happening. I examine it, think about the implications and their meaning, find something in that object or event that is a bit unusual or interesting, and then I try to relate it to other things. This process can be delightfully disruptive in the best way; it can “get the cobwebs out.” 

You return to your computer a bit fresher and ready for work. I did that just now, and, sure enough, thought of something else I want to add on this point. I went outside and saw a hose watering some flowers. The stream of water reminded me of the flow of creativity. Ideas are the water molecules. There is an infinite supply of them, forever. Never doubt that. Ideas are not scarce. Never fear that they will run out. There is nothing you can do to cause them to dissipate, and there is no reason to fear a future in which they do not exist. Your main task is to find the ideas that entice you, describe them, apply them in interesting ways, use them to illuminate the world and life in a way that brings new focus and clarity.

As you write, remember that everything you say can be changed. There is no reason to feel attached to prose just because you wrote it. My father used to tell me to write my essays and then delete the first paragraph. That’s because all young writers have a tendency to build in long runways before getting to the thing we want to say. I did that for years, until it became habitual to begin with the action item, as a way of immediately starting with the thing that people care about. 

Use your best ideas now

Young writers also have a tendency to hold back on their best material until they believe the reader is prepared for it. It also stems from a fear that once the best material is used up, there will be nothing else to write. This really is a mistake. Often it is best to start with your best material, your best statement of the theme, your best-possible idea, and then explore where that leads you. You might find that you will discover more as you write and think.

Often it is best to start with your best material, your best statement of the theme, your best-possible idea, and then explore where that leads you. If you have ever listened to a Brahms violin or cello sonata, this is exactly what he does. The sonata begins with the theme, immediately, stated completely and fully in its most developed form. Very quickly, even before the themes are fully presented, it begins to move onward in new directions and new unexpected ways. You get the sense that Brahms had one idea, couldn’t wait to put it down, and then this idea gave way to a slightly different one, and so on, and then he returns to find its essence and restate it in different ways, and so on. The listener is on a journey with the composer and player. What you find here is an amazing confidence in the truth of the music that he heard in his heart. And truly, he did just open his heart and pour it out onto the manuscript paper. As a matter of fact, most of this music — most all great music — was inspired by love (eros in this case).

And so, above all else, the writer of a book must learn to reveal his or her love, and not be shy about that. Writing that is not imbued with love does not engage. It’s fine for an academic journal or technical manual. But it does not work for real readers. To love in prose, in public, for others in the hope of inspiring others to draw some inspiration from what you love, is the highest aspiration of any writer. Learning to do that is the great challenge we all face. And yes, there is a vulnerability to doing this. But we grow when we take it on.

This is the number-one reason to undertake the project of book writer. It helps us become better people. It helps us find ourselves. More precisely, it helps us discover something new about ourselves, at least as we exist in this moment in time. And that’s all a book can really do, capture a moment in the life of our own minds. There will be other moments, God willing, new thoughts, and new ideas. We can be confident in that. And when that moment comes, we can start book two.