Neal Stephenson on stepping away

If you're like me (because I hope I'm a little dorky like my colleague Joe Brown), you're making your way through Neal Stephenson's new book Reamde. I'm loving it. Along with Kevin Kelly's stunning What Technology Wants, I think Reamde is one of a handful of must-read books from 2011. In fact, based on the fifth of the novel I've digested so far, I think they're essentially the same book, albeit entered from different points on the fiction to non-fiction spectrum. Buy 'em both, read 'em both, compare and contrast.

Anyway, a few nights ago I stumbled upon this brief interview with Neal Stephenson while snooping for some additional information about Reamde:

[For some reason this, video has been pulled from YouTube in the last day or so.  To summarize, it's an interview with Neal Stephenson, and in it he says that he works for an hour or so each morning, and creates approximately a page of really good prose, and then he goes off and does something else for the day.  When he was younger and less experienced as a writer, he used to crank and crank, resulting in lots of subpart work which he then had to expend a lot of energy to dig out from under.  I'm leaving this blank video here as a reminder to reinsert it whenever the powers that pulled it decide to repost it.  It's a great interview.  Bummer.]

Sound familiar?  Stephenson's views on productivity and quality are evocative of those of Roald Dahl, whose thoughts I explored at the start of the year.  When it comes to works requiring intense concentration — many of which seem to deal with the creation of works of language — I am noticing that many of the best practitioners of the art not only know when to stop, but know when not to work.  This goes for everyone from songwriters to poets to novelists to practitioners of agile software development.  They stop while the going is good, and they refuse to work when they know their quality will be subpar.  Of course, this also means that they've achieved a state of self-awareness where they know that the quality of their content will drop after a certain amount of effort is expended.

When it comes to the matter of reaching a state of personal creative confidence, amassing enough experience so that you can do more in less time, gaining the wisdom to recognize when you're not functioning at your best, and coupling those two with the confidence to call it quits until the next time you meet your canvas feels like a holy grail of sorts. This brings several questions to mind for me, some personal, some not so:

  1. How do you find the hour?  Whether commiting to an exercise regimen or a writing routine, making the time and commiting to it feel like a huge hurdle.  At a personal level, could I ever find an hour each morning to write?  I too believe that writing done in the cool light of the morning is writing done well, unlike the ill-considered words I spew now after a long day at work.  If I could find this hour of writing, it would mean I could finally crank out that book you've been bugging me to do about my principles of innovation.  On the other hand, it would mean going to bed earlier each night (I need my sleep), and that would imply less reading and the inspiration which comes with it. How do you find the hour?
  2. If you stop early, how do you amass the hours you need to become truly proficient at something?  Can you get to a point of practicing your craft for an hour a day if you haven't first spent many days overworking yourself for 10 or more hours at a clip?  I practiced for many years as an engineer, and the practice of engineering was long and hard.  School was long and hard; I also obtained a humanities degree alongside my engineering diploma, and I can honestly say that each of my weekly problem sets for each of my engineering classes was equivalent in difficult and total time commitment to any of the end of term papers I wrote for my humanities seminars.  I'm not poo-pooing humanities work, I'm just saying that for me the study of engineering was long and difficult.  And then, once you are a young engineer learning your trade, the hours don't seem to drop.  Once, when I was still a neophyte praticing engineer, I complaining out loud about the fact that our head engineer — who had at least 20 years of experience on me — always left the office at 5pm, while I never got out of there before 9pm, chained to my CAD machine as I was.  A more experienced colleague of mine within earshot immediately remarked to me that maybe this other guy could leave the office because he knew how to do his job, and I didn't.  He was right.  I didn't really know how to do my job yet.  I see young designers grapple with this all of the time.  These days, having spent almost 20 years engaging in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life I think I can leave at 6pm and feel pretty good about having put in a good day's work.  I suppose there's something in here about Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule, but at least for me, 10,000 hours doesn't feel like its enough if you're always looking to learn and improve…  I'm not quite ready to leave at 5pm on a consistent basis.  Not experienced enough yet, I suppose.
  3. Where does the variety come from?  Stephenson is very clear about his need to seek out a variety of experiences outside the walls of his writing studio.  It's the un-pause which refreshes.  Many of the most creative people I know — from engineers to graphic designers to professors to venture capitalists — make it a point to end their days and weeks with with a sizable block of hours they can't account for.  This could come from grabbing coffee with a friend, playing a round of ultimate frisbee, or going for a long joyride in your friend's GT3 in the hills above Silicon Valley (who, me?).  Stefan Sagmeister closes his office — totally shuts it down — to give himself a year of "retirement" in which he goes and works on different stuff in order to refertilize the mainstream work awaiting him upon his return. Random encounters with interesting streams of life coming at you not only lead to the serendipity of which innovations are made, but they rest an rejuevenate in a way that the grindstone just can't.  Where does all of this variety come from?  As with finding the hour to write, it feels like it's a different form of discipline you need to impose upon yourself.

This is a long post because I clearly don't know what I'm talking about.  I'm just writing to think.  I'd love to hear what you think.  Thanks!


1 thought on “Neal Stephenson on stepping away

  1. I think this hits on an important idea…that doing consistent great work operates like a reciprocating engine. In order for there to be a top dead center there also needs to be a bottom dead center.
    One of my favorite examples of this is Elmore Leonard (one of my favorite authors, Detroit native and alum of my high school). For 11 years he woke up at 5AM and wrote his westerns and crime novels for 2 hours before heading off to his agency job (writing Corvette ads, eventually tutoring a young guy named David E. Davis, Jr.). Think about that…11 years of before-the-sun work on his real passion. Every morning I wake up early to get started I think about him doing that and it inspires me.

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