Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Brooks works

Jackie Coogan in Skippy (1931).

Schematic David Brooks, "The Good Order: Routine, Creativity, and President Obama's U.N. Speech", New York Times, September 26 2014:

1. Steal some anecdotes about the writing routines of Maya Angelou, John Cheever, and Anthony Trollope.

2. Acknowledge your source in such a way as to make it seem not like a source, merely an aide-mémoire, and the author you're stealing from merely a "compiler":
I was reminded of these routines by a book called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” compiled by Mason Currey.
3. Steal some quotations from Sigmund Freud, Henry Miller, and W.H. Auden, ideally from the same book. That's called productivity.

4. Segue to Obama:
Building and maintaining order — whether artistic, political or global — seems elementary, but it’s surprisingly hard. Writers have to go to amazing lengths to impose order on their own unruly minds — going off to basement storage rooms. W. Somerset Maugham refused to work in a room with a view. He liked facing a bare wall. It requires toughness of mind and rigid discipline to properly serve your own work.

Preserving world order is even harder.... 
Although it has nothing to do with what time Obama gets up in the morning and gets himself to work, but rather how he appears to be following Brooks's advice in sounding very belligerent ("Speak loudly, and don't go into too much detail about the size of your stick," as Teddy Roosevelt didn't say) in his UN speech this week. But it's turned the column into a valuable instance of how nonpartisan we are, unlike that beastly Friedman, who doesn't even seem to like wars any more.

5. File copy, and it's cocktail time! Just shows you what you can do with a little hard work and writerly discipline!

George Cukor, Camille (1936), via Gods and Foolish Grandeur.

Bonus: David Brooks Plagiarism Watch

You be the judge. I don't know what the Times ethics code says, but he's definitely in violation of the standards set for students at Yale, which I've cited him for before, and if I were his editor I'd certainly feel obliged to fire him over this piece.

Maya Angelou, as quoted in Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, 2013 (via Parade):
I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine. I keep a hotel room in which I do my work—a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30.
David Brooks:
When she was writing, Maya Angelou would get up every morning at 5:30 and have coffee at 6. At 6:30, she would go off to a hotel room she kept — a small modest room with nothing but a bed, desk, Bible, dictionary, deck of cards and bottle of sherry. She would arrive at the room at 7 a.m. and write until 12:30 p.m. or 2 o’clock.
Mason Currey on John Cheever, as transmitted in a review by Seb Emina in The Guardian:
During the late 1940s, John Cheever worked to an unconventional routine. In the morning he would put on his business suit, leave his apartment, and catch the lift downstairs with any commuters. Then, when they reached the ground floor, he would keep going, down to the basement, where he'd walk to his favourite storage room, strip down to his boxer shorts and spend the morning writing. At noon he put his suit back on and headed back upstairs. Lunch followed, then a leisurely afternoon.
David Brooks:
John Cheever would get up, put on his only suit, ride the elevator in his apartment building down to a storage room in the basement. Then he’d take off his suit and sit in his boxers and write until noon. Then he’d put the suit back on and ride upstairs to lunch.
I wondered: Cheever really only had one suit?

Yep. Wikipedia:
After the war, Cheever moved his family to an apartment building at 400 East 59th Street, near Sutton Place, Manhattan; almost every morning for the next five years, he would dress in his only suit and take the elevator to a maid's room in the basement, where he stripped to his boxer shorts and wrote until lunchtime.
Though actually it was one "good" suit:
"In the morning," his daughter, Susan, wrote, "my father would put on his one good suit and his gray felt hat and ride down in the elevator with the other men on their way to the office. From the lobby he would walk down to the basement, to the windowless storage room that came with our apartment. That was where he worked. There, he hung up the suit and hat and wrote all morning in his boxer shorts, typing away at his portable Underwood set up on the folding table. At lunchtime he would put the suit back on and ride up in the elevator."
I can't find a good text for Currey's treatment of Anthony Trollope without buying the book, but the sources are pretty familiar and widely paraphrased. I can't imagine Brooks's version shows any more originality here than in the other examples. I'm including it because I love reading about Trollope.

Blogger Refined Robot, December 5 2009:
Trollope paid a servant an extra £5 a year to wake him up at 5:30 am every morning and get him a cup of coffee. Trollope would then work on a novel for three hours. The first half hour was spent reading over what he had already written, and after that he wrote at a pace of 250 words per 15 minutes. So, over three hours, he would write approximately 2,500 words.
Blogger Ed Patterson, April 23 2013:
One of my favorite stories about Trollope confirms his literary discipline. Upon completing a lengthy work, with fifteen minutes left in his ‘writing day’, he penned the words THE END, and put the manuscript aside. A lesser writer would call it a day – but not Anthony Trollope. He pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and began his next book.
David Brooks:
Anthony Trollope would arrive at his writing table at 5:30 each morning. His servant would bring him the same cup of coffee at the same time. He would write 250 words every 15 minutes for two and a half hours every day. If he finished a novel without writing his daily 2,500 words, he would immediately start a new novel to complete his word allotment.
Really, the same cup? I'm sure he drank each cup when it arrived and the next time the servant showed up it was a fresh one.

Mason Currey, from the Kindle preview:

David Brooks:
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” W.H. Auden observed.

Auden checked his watch constantly, making sure each task filled no more than its allotted moment. “A modern stoic,” he argued, “knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time; decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”
It's at the least hilariously ironic that most of the column, before he lurches into politics, is devoted to claims for assiduous labor as the secret of success—
People who lead routine, anal-retentive lives have a bad reputation in our culture. But life is paradoxical. In situation after situation, this pattern recurs: order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring
—at the same time as he is displaying an astonishing scorn for it. 

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