time management

Friday Nonfiction Five

Five quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.  Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emccullough or contact me here

heartfiveTim Parks ponders the archive he will leave behind. Or not.

A plea for peace from the coffee shop writer.

What if I told you you could only write for five minutes? It might make you more productive.

Evernote is one of my top ten favorite tools. Can Brett Kelly make it one of yours?

Greg McKeown on 12 myths that keep people busy — but not satisfied.


How did you write that, Carl Rollyson?

Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the ActressCarl Rollyson is an impressively prolific writer. How does he do it? To find out, I asked him five questions (plus one bonus question) about Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, which comes out this June in an updated edition with a smashing new cover. Here are his answers.

HDYWT:  How did you come up with the idea for Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress?

Carl: After completing my doctoral dissertation on William Faulkner in 1975, I wanted to begin work on  the next generation of American writers. My dissertation had to do with Faulkner’s understanding of history, and I decided to deal with a writer who had similar concerns. Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night intrigued me because of its two sections: The Novel as History, History as a Novel. So I began to read Mailer and discovered biography when I read his book about Marilyn Monroe.  I say “discovered” because biography was never a subject of study in any of the schools I attended, and that remains the case today.  Biography is not a permanent part of any curriculum I know of.

While Mailer’s biography of Monroe has been much maligned, it is, in fact, an important work not only about Monroe but about the genre of biography.  I suddenly realized that I was not merely interested in history but in biography, in the way individual lives are interpreted.  Mailer used one word to describe Monroe that no other biographer had used. He called her ambition “Napoleonic.”  That was very astute.  The more I read about her, the more I could see his point.  She really did want to conquer the world and, in many ways, she has succeeded.

I put my argument for Mailer’s Marilyn in a new journal, Biography, which was just getting started in 1978.  Then a former professor of mine, M. Thomas Inge, asked me to write a biobibliography for Greenwood Press.  This was essentially a biographical essay with various commentaries on books about Monroe and how she has been presented in different media. So I spent the summer of 1980 reading the literature about Monroe. I realized that even the most important books about her, including Mailer’s, missed the most important part of her biography. She had this terrific desire to be an actress.  Did she, in fact, become an actress, or just a star?  I began as an actor, doing high school plays, community theater, and summer stock, and I felt I knew a great deal about acting.  So I believed I was bringing something new to Monroe biography — and I still believe that.

No book that has been published since mine shows, as I believe I do, how she did become an actress and how that got translated onto the movie screen. To write the kind of book I wanted to do, though, I had to give up the Greenwood Press contract.  My work no longer fit their format. And so began quite a long search (six years) to write the book and find a publisher.

HDYWT:  How did you get started on the project?

Carl: The real start of the project occurred when I realized I was not content with summarizing and then commenting on what others had said about Monroe. I wanted to meet people who knew her. I was fortunate that I knew Bruce Minnix, director of the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. Bruce had told me long before I ever dreamed of writing about Monroe that he knew two of her friends. So I called on Bruce, who put me in touch with Ralph Roberts, Marilyn’s masseur and confidant, and Steffi Sidney, the daughter of Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who helped Monroe invent some of the more dramatic stories about her life. They, in turned, connected me with others, like Rupert Allan, Marilyn’s most important publicist. Just as important were my contacts with Maurice Zolotow and Fred Lawrence Guiles, two of Marilyn’s early and most important biographers. They were wonderful to me, sharing their insights, and providing me with still others to interview. Guiles let me visit him in the hospital while he was recovering from a heart attack, and later he sent me a recording of his interview with Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s most important acting teacher. Zolotow became a friend, helping me on other projects, especially my biography of Lillian Hellman. And so I began my networking as a biographer.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Carl: I had no idea how to organize my research, let alone write a biography. Graduate school had been no help in that regard. As a literary scholar, I just studied and wrote about books. I had no experience interviewing people. I just did it as on the job training. I had to learn how to write narrative. The breakthrough moment came when Susan Strasberg read part of an early draft. I had interviewed her about her memories of Monroe and Actors Studio, and we got along very well — in part, I think, because she could see I was going to write about Marilyn as an actress in a way no one else had done before. I sent her an early draft of the book, and she said: “When you tell the story of her life and her acting you establish your voice. But then there is also this other stuff that sounds like a treatise. Who are you trying to impress — your colleagues?” That’s when I threw out about two thirds of the book and rewrote it as a narrative. As soon as I had my story, the organization of research fell into place. I had files, of course, that were chronological and thematic. But, in truth, I never worry much about organizing research. I determine what story I want to tell and then look for the details and dates that sustain the narrative. Now when someone asks me how I organize my research, my short answer is “I’m too busy to organize.”

HDYWT:  What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Carl: I used to write in the morning first thing — 500 to 1000 words a day, without fail.  That would take about two or three hours of actual writing.  Now in the social media age, I look at and post on Facebook, Twitter, and sometimes a few other sites.  The afternoon is devoted to reading, which often ends up in a nap too.  I never work at night.  Night is for watching television.

HDYWT:  What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Carl: Right now I’m finishing a biography of Walter Brennan. IMDb is invaluable for reviews, synopses, and other data about movies. I especially like to check the user reviews and sometimes even quote and refer to them because I have found visceral responses that don’t always get into the professional critics’ reviews. I do my work on an iPad, so I’m especially pleased when I can get ebook editions so that I can quickly go back and forth between books without having to pile up lots of stuff in my workspace. Wikipedia is very helpful. I realize that sometimes it is unreliable, but I don’t use it as a single source. I always check it against other sources. But Wikipedia is so readily available and convenient, I go to it all the time.

IMDb, by the way, is not always reliable either. The IMDb entry on Walter Brennan reports that when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Brennan cackled and did a jig on the set of his television series, The Guns of Will Sonnett. He did this according to crew members on the series. It is a shocking story and not like anything else I ever read about Brennan. He was a reactionary, but he was also a devout Roman Catholic and was born in Massachusetts to an Irish American family. Now that in itself does not mean, of course, that Walter Brennan did not do that cackle and jig. But he often spoke well of people he didn’t like after they died, so I was skeptical. Also, King was assassinated in April 1968 and Kennedy in June of that year. Did Brennan cackle and jig twice? The story seemed too pat. Well, with the help of the redoubtable Ned Comstock, an archivist at University of Southern California, I determined that The Guns of Will Sonnett was not in production in April 1968, and it did not resume production until the last week in June. I very much doubt Brennan did as IMDb reported, since the story is supposedly a report of his spontaneous reaction to the news of two assassinations.

Also on my iPad is an app for ZITE, a news aggregator. It breaks down the news into several categories, including books and biography. I get lots of leads checking ZITE every morning, and I sometimes post articles from ZITE on Facebook and Twitter, and I sometimes get valuable responses that lead me to do more research.

Bonus question: Why biography?

Carl: I would love to write a novel, but my talent does not seem to work that way. And I’m also on a mission not only to write biographies but to write about the history of the genre. I think Samuel Johnson is right about the importance of biography. It is at least as important as the novel, although very few critics seem to realize it. Biography, in my view, brings together everything: people, events, story-telling, criticism, and the actor’s joy in entering a role. To me, biography is a form of knowledge that is irreplaceable. That biography has virtually no place in academic life is a scandal as far as I’m concerned.

I review biographies because I also think the reviewing of biographies is appalling. Most of what you get are book reports just summarizing what the biographer discovered and those reviews are done in a tone that makes you think the reviewer is the authority. In most cases, the reviewer has no idea how to read, let alone write, a biography. And most reviewers don’t have the time or space to check the biographer’s sources, or measure one biography against another on the same subject. I’ve been fortunate to find publications that allow me to use my resources as a biographer. This was especially true at The New York Sun (which, alas, is no more) and at The Wall Street Journal, which, by the way, has a book review weekend section that is better than what you will find in The New York Times. Reading and writing biography requires a kind of energy and labor most critics are not equipped to exercise, and monetary compensation for such work is minimal. I try to provide an alternative way of reviewing biography in my collection of New York Sun reviews, entitled Reading Biography.

How did you write that, Erika Janik?

Marketplace of the MarvelousErika Janik has a wonderfully descriptive tagline on her author website: Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing. I wondered how her curiosity and passion led to her most recent book, Marketplace of the Marvelous. Here are her answers to five questions (plus one bonus question) about her writing process:

HDYWT:  How did you come up with the idea for Marketplace of the Marvelous?

Erika: A few years ago, I wrote an article with my husband about a family that ran a fraudulent medical “institute” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, around 1900. They diagnosed just about every complaint as a “sexual dysfunction” and prescribed some kind of electrical device as the cure — an electric belt, an electric vest. The research just got a little out of control (which is kind of the story of my life) but also led me to question my assumptions about what medicine had been like in the past. I thought I knew that quacks preyed on innocent people and made a mint prescribing concoctions made of alcohol and opium, but I kept running across so-called quacks who recommended things like drinking water and exercising for health. And others who seemed to truly believe that their remedy worked and had no intentions of defrauding anyone. I started to wonder why these alternative healers were so popular in the 19th century (and they really were), and what influence they had on modern ideas of health and wellness.

Erika JanikHDYWT:  How did you get started on the project?

Erika: I spent about three years researching and writing this book. I’d say at least a year and a half of that was spent not having a clue what I was looking for or how this would all come together! I made lists of questions as I read 19th century health manuals, newspapers, and letters. As with any project, I’ve accumulated far more research than could ever fit in a book — at least a book anyone would want to read! My knowledge of medical history was fairly limited so I first got a lay of the land reading some other medical history books. I soon discovered — to my delight — that this story involved three things I love: women’s history, utopian ideas, and quirky characters.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Erika: I wish I knew the answer to this question. I tend to spend months taking notes and then decide one day that I’m ready to write. I never really know when that moment will come. I usually decide on several topics and themes that I want to address and go through my notes highlighting everything that falls under that topic. It’s imperfect — some things overlap and other things don’t seem to fit anywhere — but somehow this seems to work for me. For this book, I first organized all of the research on each major medical movement (hydropathy, homeopathy, etc.) and then broke each of those down further into topics like theory of disease, opposition from mainstream medicine, and women. I usually run out of marker colors.

HDYWT:  What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Erika: I have an amazing day job as a radio producer so I tend to sneak in research, writing, and promotion around the edges. I get up at 5AM and head to the gym for an hour. I’m usually at work by 7:30AM. Every day is different. I’m often in the studio interviewing someone or coaching writers who have written essays for broadcast; editing audio; updating social media and uploading audio files; and of course, lots of meetings. Other days, I’m out in the field recording with my headphones, recorder, and mic following someone around and talking about his or her life.

My job is very flexible, which is great because I often have public talks related to one of my books or an interview on weekdays. I’m usually juggling email and phone calls from my two lives all day: work and writing.

I’m usually home from work by 4PM. That’s when I start writing or researching. I’ll break for dinner around 5:30 or 6 and then continue to work until 8PM.

HDYWT:  What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Erika: I’m thankful to be affiliated with the University of Wisconsin through my job. I work on campus and live only a few blocks away. The various campus libraries are a tremendous resource for my research, as well as the online collections and databases I can access through the university library system. In an ideal world, I’d travel the world to do my research but since that’s not feasible, the library catalog, interlibrary loan, ProQuest, and JSTOR (a scholarly journal archive) give me the armchair version of a research trip.

Also, my treadmill desk. I’m a pretty active and restless person so being able to walk and take notes is a dream come true. It’s harder for me to write while walking but I’ve certainly done it.

Bonus question: Your work covers a breath-taking range of topics — American history, natural history, medicine, cooking. What’s the common thread?

Erika: History is the thread. I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. I had wonderful history teachers and parents who instilled a deep appreciation for the past from an early age. Family vacations frequently revolved around visits to presidents’ homes (James Garfield’s library is gorgeous) as well as stops at odd sites like the world’s largest ball of twine or the telephone museum. I’m insatiably curious about the world and how it got the way it is today. I studied women’s history in graduate school so I’m definitely drawn to stories that involve what I sometimes think of as “women in unexpected places.” And all those visits to large balls of twine drew me to idiosyncratic characters and unusual ideas.

How did you write that, Hillary Rettig?

The 7 Secrets of the ProlificHillary Rettig is a teacher, an activist, and a writer. Her most recent book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, is a guide to understanding and overcoming procrastination. Here are her answers to five questions (plus one bonus question) about her writing process:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for your current project?

Hillary: My current project is a weight loss guide, How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss and Other Important Goals. It’s a topic that’s hugely important to me, since I and many members of my family have struggled with weight loss. And there are obviously a zillion other books on the same topic out there. I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t feel I could bring a fresh and useful perspective to the problem, and that perspective is that overweight and obesity are fundamentally procrastination, perfectionism, and time management problems. I think it’s going to be a great book, and help a lot of people, and sell well.

HDYWT: How did you get started on this project?

Hillary: While I was writing my prior book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, it was very clear that everything I was writing on procrastination, perfectionism, and time management also pertained to weight loss and other important goals. My initial idea was that I could basically “repurpose” 7 Secrets for this new topic by replacing all the nouns and verbs. As usual, however, it turned out to be a much bigger project than anticipated. At least 50% of the book is brand new, including sections on topics such as “societal causes of overweight,” “body ambivalence and body alienation,” and the “asymmetry” of weight loss — why it’s so much easier to gain weight than to lose it.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Hillary: I’ve read around fifty books on weight loss, motivation, addiction, and related fields, and about the same number of scholarly and lay articles. By now, a year into the book, I’ve reread each of these several times, and highlighted and annotated them all thoroughly. This means I can hold their general ideas and viewpoints in my head while writing.

The above process may sound inefficient compared with, say, copying some juicy quotes and then tossing the source away forever, but I think it gives me a much deeper understanding of the topic, and also helps me to make connections among my sources. It also allows me, while writing, to pretty quickly locate information relevant to the section I’m working on. And while I’m reading, I often make notes right into the relevant chapter file of my manuscript. So my drafts are pastiches of polished prose, unpolished prose, and quotes and excerpts from my source materials. (The more I revise, the higher the ratio of polished prose to the rest.)

When the manuscript is finalized, I will reread all of these resources again to make sure I didn’t leave out or misrepresent something.

I’ve also got about a dozen diverse “alpha readers” who are interested in the topic, and whom I send chunks of the manuscript to as it’s written. They’re pretty good at sussing out passages that are under-researched or that don’t make sense, along with other problems. And I will probably also gather together all the scientific elements of the book — those pertaining to the medicine, nutrition, and psychology — and run those past experts. My book is mainly about motivation, though, and that’s my expertise, so I will be confident of its main points.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Hillary: I generally get up at 7 — earlier than I would like because of the dogs, who are implacable alarm clocks. I’m at my desk by 8, read some blogs and do some client and other “essential” emails for an hour, and then starting at 9 write for around four hours, including breaks, either on my books or a blog post or other topic. Sometimes I’ll do some telephone coaching during that period, although I never schedule anything except writing and coaching for the mornings, if I can help it.

I stop at around 1 or 2 p.m., then spend a couple of hours eating lunch and napping. Maybe there’s an alternate universe where I don’t get tired after lunch, but in this one I do, and since one of the perks of the writing life is that you set your own schedule, I indulge myself that way. I’m back up around 3; then do marketing and promotion for another 2-3 hours. By now it’s around 6 p.m. and I eat a light dinner, and then most nights either go for a long walk with my partner, or go to the gym. I get back no later than 8 p.m., and then do another hour or two of work.

At around 9 p.m., my partner and I might decide to watch some television — we try not to watch it any earlier, although I might watch a half-hour while eating lunch. But just as often we’ll sit together and do our work. I get a lot of my reading done in the evenings.

I’m usually in bed between 11 and 12, after having walked the dogs.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your toolbox?

Hillary: My tools are very basic, but they meet my needs, probably because a lot of my source material is in paper form. So: highlighters, web bookmarks, a timer to track my time use, and spreadsheets to track word counts, chapter counts, and other progress. I also constantly use Wikipedia (and donate to it monthly). It wasn’t long ago that one had to make a phone call or visit a library to confirm every.single.piece.of.information, so I don’t take Wikipedia for granted!

I work in OpenOffice on a GNU/Linux system because I despise Microsoft and Apple’s pro-DRM, anti-privacy, and other politics. [http://www.fsf.org/] If Scrivener is ever released for GNU/Linux, I would jump on that.

Bonus question: What do you wish someone could have told you before you started this project?

Hillary: Nothing, really. I knew what I was getting into!