Manuscript Submitted, and Back to Work

On December 31, I handed in my manuscript for ONE INCH FROM EARTH. From start to finish, genesis of an idea to a 180,000 word manuscript, took four full years. The first eighteen months were spent researching and writing what became a book proposal. After Geoff Shandler of Custom House bought the book in a preempt, it was off to the races. I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life. The final two months, in particular, nearly killed me. I spent years fantasizing what I would do the moment the manuscript was completed. Here is what I did. I hit “send” on the email to Geoff and Stacia Decker, my agent, and promptly—literally within the hour—fell into terrible illness. My family and I had a celebratory dinner at a local favorite restaurant, and not even the champagne could rescue the event. I was absolutely sick and exhausted, as though my body had been holding it all in, worked for me, fought diligently to keep me going, succeeded, and promptly surrendered. I survived, more or less, though it was tough going for a few days.

Once edits conclude and the book is released in 2020, I hope the world agrees that it was worth the effort. Now I begin work on the next proposal. Long book projects are very lonely endeavors, but ONE INCH FROM EARTH was worth every second of it. My next one will be pretty exciting, too.

My freelance work fell largely by the wayside over the last couple of years, though recently of note: I embedded with the OSIRIS-REx team during the final approach of Bennu for the first spectral observations, and wrote about it for Scientific American here. (This is part of my ongoing coverage of OSIRIS-REx, one of the best missions NASA has ever launched.) Lee Billings gave the piece a sublime edit. I also wrote a nice piece for Smithsonian on sample return missions. Jay Bennett there was also a dream to work with, and I will be covering the 2019 Lunar and Planetary Science conference in March for him. That’s a good update of where I am at today. I will hopefully have more to report later.

Career Day

MFA graduates and self-publishing evangelists have really poisoned the well on writers talking about being writers—not that the water was ever really potable, exactly. It's a strange job to discuss with non-writers because there are certain expectations there, both good and bad, that don't apply to "IT specialist" or "salesperson." I mention this at all because I recently participated in a career day at my daughter's school and had to describe my job to middle and high school students. My talk was not particularly inspiring for a lot of reasons. It was too process-heavy: "Here's how querying works," and such, which nobody really wants to know how to do. Not even writers. People want "writer stories"—something to fit the mysterious mold shaped by the forgotten generation. In retrospect I'm not sure how I could have better organized the talk. How do you become a writer (as opposed to a typist)? You become a servant of the written word. You read all the time. You put a straw into the largest puddle of life and literature you can find, and drink until full, and then drink some more. You spend your life trying to apply to your pages what you've learned from the pages of others. That's it, I suppose, though it feels a little grandiose to spell out.

"What do you write?" is a hard question for me to answer. I write as widely as are my interests, and deeply in select areas, but there is a lot of mercenary work in between that requires very little puddle drinking, and in my more sullen moments, I want to respond, "Of the stuff that I'm proud of, or including the shit that I also have to write to pay bills?" Still, I would never submit work to editors that I am not proud of in terms of the quality of prose. (What editors do to it is something else.) The very notion of slapdash writing is abhorrent to me, and I am perplexed by the endless army of writers who leap from bed every morning eager to grind out disposable "content"—there's no greater profanity—or write 20-lists punctuated by animated cat GIFs. This massive Internet organism chasing down clicks. The reason the Buzzfeeds and Fusions of the world have pivoted so effortlessly to video is because they never gave a damn about prose in the first place. (Buzzfeed's longform section excluded.)

I've never understood people content with just doing a job. There has to be some grand purpose and wild, far-off ambition, and when one looks back on his or her life, it has to have been about more than money. I've never not wanted to sink my hands into the planet's soil and pull madly until it spins a little faster. That is a big part of the reason that I think I get the people who work in the space industry, from janitor to scientists. A couple of years ago, there was a piece in the Washington Post about the men and women who built the A-3 test stand for NASA's Constellation rocket. (I've written about test stands here.) Welders and machinists and such—blue collar workers of the sort who built America and keep her going—and they were just in doleful disbelief that Constellation was canceled and their work discarded. They built the test stand that would take humanity to Mars! If you are a welder, is there a greater possible achievement? (Is there a greater achievement for any trade?) And they did it. And the White House shut it all down and built fences around the test stand and locked the whole thing up. The SLS, which replaced Constellation's rocket system, is incompatible with it. My heart breaks for these people. When I toured NASA Stennis, the test stand's only acknowledgement as we passed by, in fact, came from another passenger on the bus: "Poor A-3." On we drove.

Surprisingly often, when I interview people in the space program, they apologize for sounding too lofty. There is no need for such apologies. If your job is the exploration of the Jupiter system, and your goal is to unlock the mystery of life itself, you are entitled to a little loftiness, because there is no loftier calling. My own far-off ambition is simply too great to put publicly in print, but my higher purpose is the American literary tradition. To write something worthy of being included, and maybe being remembered—something to justify the privilege of having written it in the first place. Most writers have some goal. The big scoop, the definitive take, the scandal revealed, the injustice righted. Those things matter to me, but nothing matters more to me than the words themselves, and their employment and poetry in telling the story. Batman can bring justice to the world, but can he do so in well-ordered paragraphs? I probably should have talked about all this during my presentation.

** The classroom scene in City Slickers is to me the definitive representation of career day, and though I didn't collapse entirely into a midlife crisis during my talk, it did occur to me how close I now am in age to Billy Crystal in that film. He seemed impossibly old when I first saw it in grade school, and here I am. If I am totally honest, I could probably use a cattle drive to sort out things in my head.

Neal Gabler and the Hungry Writer

This month, Neal Gabler has a piece in The Atlantic wherein he discusses the perilous financial state of Americans and describes openly "his secret shame"—his personal financial woes. It's one of the more unnerving things I've read this year, if only because Gabler's biography of Walt Disney sits on my nightstand (it's a masterpiece) and as a writer, I just assume that if you can produce something like that, you can do anything, and you do so from your other apartment—the one in Montparnasse that you bought because you liked the tree out front. Gabler is a consummate writer, skilled with the pen and willing to do the hard work of research to make his journalism sing. When I think of the challenges that must come with researching Walt Disney's life, I lapse into silent awe that it's even possible. Such research involves more than the basics, or even the extraordinary. Rather, it involves a lone scribe doing battle with the most powerful media company in human history. Walt Disney isn't just a man, but a brand and an American ideal akin to Washington or Lincoln. (Disney himself recognized this, and it could be a source of anxiety and exhaustion for him.) The Walt Disney Company, which I admire greatly, has a vested interest in keeping its namesake a secular saint. I imagine that the company did not exactly meet Gabler with open arms, and yet Gabler successfully unveils Disney the man, great and good in the best ways—Walt Disney was a truly good man—but also flawed, complex, moody and sometimes selfish, searing and tyrannical.

Maybe the aura of Disney extended, as I read the biography, around Gabler, just as we see the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty and cannot help but apply that same sense of intrinsic wonder to Gustave Eiffel. Of course Gabler is a colossus! Of course he's flush, his only concern being the business end of a word processor. But we now know better. It's not like this isn't without precedent. Nobody thinks of Hemingway in Paris and recalls that he starved while there, pennies to his name, but that was the Paris he knew.

Gabler's piece has been like a wrecking ball coursing across my brain for weeks now. While I will not reveal my personal finances (unlike Gabler, who puts it all out there in heroic detail), I will submit that I'm doing OK. I write a lot—approximately 1,000 publishable words a day for a half-dozen outlets, not counting my book work, commonplace writing, or correspondence—despite my living in the middle of nowhere (a place, it must be said, where the cost of living is low, taking my income even further). Still, I worry constantly about money because my daughter attends private school and I expect of myself to be able to provide her a first-rate education now through the end of her college career. (There is a 1% and concomitant "social network," and my goal in life is to enable her to be a part of it.) Moreover, like many, I live with an acute, chronic case of imposter syndrome, ever in expectation that my house of cards will collapse and I'll have to figure out how to begin again. I want to die in front of Microsoft Word (in 40 years or so); I never want to go back to the myriad jobs I held previously (however tempting it might be to don a Starbucks apron and tell some of my younger, inexperienced editors to fuck off).

Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield has spoken eloquently about such fears, using the example of being chased by a bear. When you are being chased by a bear, he says, you're not worried about being chased; you're worried about being caught. When the bear catches you, you're not worried about being caught; you're worried about being eaten. When the bear starts eating you, you're not worried about being eaten; you're worried about being killed.

And so when I read that Gabler would have trouble coming up with $400 in cash if asked, I wonder what my own future holds. I am not a financial wizard. I'm barely a financial street magician. Certainly, I am talented and have had extraordinarily good fortune, but what about next year? This is a high stakes business whose fortunes are ever in flux. Melville died penniless, and he's the greatest author to ever live. How fast is the bear running? Will it catch me, and what happens then?

Scenes from a Coffee Shop

Most of my work is done from coffee shops. This blog post is being written from a local CC's, which is a Louisiana coffee chain. (I live in Louisiana.) As a rule, I rotate the places from which I work. There are three Starbucks and four CC's reasonably close to my house. There's no real method in choosing where I work on a given day, but morning-time traffic is often a consideration, and the simple need for a change of scenery (staring out the window at Airline Highway traffic versus staring out the window at Perkins Road traffic). I have an office at home, and I do a lot of work there, too, but this business can get pretty lonely, especially when you're deep into a project and despairing over the impossibility of it all. It helps to have people around, even though my actual interaction with other people is limited to "I'd like a grande medium roast." I've mentioned previously my love for the Relax Melodies app, which allows you to choose from a variety of sounds, mixing together up to 12 in order to create the most soothing white noise possible. (Presently I have Rain, Winds, Thunder, Train, Wind Chimes, Storm, Wind Surge, Heavy Rain, Rainstorm (do you see a pattern here?), Thunderstorm, City Ambiance, and Crowd playing. If this were actually a storm, I'd likely be swept to Oz.) This is my default mix, though I add various sounds depending on how loud neighboring tables are. I look for a sound effect that matches his (it's always a man) voice, thus canceling it out.

I'm always curious about the people around me, though I never ask them why they're not at work doing an actual job. To the best of my knowledge, none of them are writers. (I'm not sure I've ever seen another professional scribe in the wilds of the town.)

Some are easy to identify: business types—consultants or salespeople—usually use an iPad with some sort of leather case that also holds a large notepad. Occasionally, salespeople actually meet clients, and those are the worst because the whole thing is so phony. (That is to say, it's usually some sort of pyramid scheme at work. Actual salespeople with million dollar contracts at stake, I suspect, meet in their offices downtown, and take prospective clients to an expensive lunch.) Students are frequently to be found. They're the ones wearing hoodies and using high-end Macbooks they shouldn't be able to afford. They drink trenta-sized fraps (or Mochassippis, as they're called at CC's).

Occasionally, I see groups of really old men gather. They usually sit in the leather chairs, and are very loud but generally in high spirits. They discuss politics, but distantly. They've seen it all and are in agreement about which candidates are good and which are not. Debates never ensue. Whatever their party is, they don't seem particularly loyal.

Occasionally, two people who are friends with each other might meet for a quick cup. They are usually women, and they tend to be in their late 40's or early 50's. I almost never see couples (in the romantic sense) who meet to just have coffee. I suspect the reason for this is that drinks everywhere are now served in paper cups, which basically scream, "Take this and please leave." There's nothing relaxing about it. (Because I have no intention of leaving, they don't really bother me, though I'd kill for coffee served in a proper cup and saucer.)

When I'm not wearing headphones, the conversations I overhear are almost always the same. Friends who meet almost always discuss family problems: recent deaths, aging parents, children adrift—that sort of thing. There are occasional religious discussions. (When there are, that's usually the whole purpose of this visit.) They swap Bible website addresses and talk about what the Lord says about forgiveness. (Forgiveness is invariably the topic of discussion.) One or both bring those Bibles with the zipper on the side. It's serious business, the religious meetings.

After almost 10 years of this, I've only overheard one fight, ever, and it was between two middle aged sisters over money. Not even big money—inheritance-level money—but over a 100 dollars or something. They didn't seem impoverished or anything where 100 would change someone's life. Between the two of them, they probably had 25 dollars worth of specialty drinks and bakery items. I guess it was a principle thing, but the discussion got out of hand, and in the end one of them left in a huff and that was it. Starbucks got boring again.

I never order the pastries at Starbucks. Baked goods are my weakness. Bread, croissants, muffins, cookies, cakes—I'll eat any and all of them. But when Starbucks foisted their La Boulange atrocities on the world, baristas, still learning the ropes, tended to open the plastic wraps (think: Twinkie wrappers) in front of customers, and then microwave the pastries before serving them in a paper bag soon sodden with grease. In the worst way possible, this destroyed the illusion of an actual bakery somewhere in the back. If I wanted a microwaved Little Debbie, I could go to Dollar Tree and buy a box of six for a buck. Anyway, Starbucks baked goods have always bothered me because of their uniformity of appearance. If ever you've baked anything, you know what I mean. You bake a tray of muffins, and some are bigger than others. Some are smoother on the surface, and some come bursting forth as shown on the cookbook photo (or the picture on the box). There's a certain inevitable variety in the results. But Starbucks pastries all look precisely identical, as though they were 3D printed, frozen, and shipped to shops across the country. It's unnatural and kind of disgusting.

(Likewise, I never order the specialty drinks, though my reason involves the high calorie counts. I can't imagine drinking more calories than I would burn in a five-mile run. The drinks themselves are delicious and wholly appealing, however.)

The only people who really bother me at coffee shops are the ones who come alone and spend an hour talking on their cell phones. The human brain evolved, I guess, to filter out (when necessary) two people carrying on a conversation. One person on a cell phone though, and it's triply distracting because 1. He or she speaks louder than two people having a normal discussion; 2. Anyone with such a gross lack of self-awareness is also likely to be overly animated, and emote and use theatrical hand gestures; 3. The human brain goes crazy wondering what in the hell is going on with the loud half-conversation. The brain hears a person posing and answering questions and wonders instinctively, "Am I the one who should be answering this person?" Or maybe it's a matter of evolution-driven self-preservation: the caveman who talked loudly to himself was the one likely to bash you over the head with a club. Be wary.

(Of course Larry David addressed this very problem on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

I have no idea what people think of me. "When will this guy get a job?" or "Why is he always here?" or "What is he typing?" I don't know. Maybe they think I'm a non-traditional (read: old) student. It doesn't really matter, and by rotating coffee shops just often enough, nobody ever gets the chance to ask.

iPads as Education Placebo

The Washington Post has a depressing op-ed written by a teacher whose third grade class was issued Apple iPads. I don't need to tell you that the ending is unhappy. As it turns out, if you give $500 gaming devices to children, they tune out and play games. Here's a heartbreaking passage:

One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.

The Internet didn't begin rolling out to schools in any meaningful way until my last years of high school, and I was spared the worst of the technology jihad mounted by people who were just certain that "a computer in every classroom" (that was the rally cry) would Change Everything, and that Our Children Need Computers, and so on.

(N.b. that now that computers have ruined schools across America, the new demand is for students to learn how to code, which, writing as someone with a B.S. in computer science, is about as hilarious and pointless an endeavor as anything ever attempted ever. Only a very tiny percentage of people will ever or should ever need to touch a compiler, and of them, only an infinitesimal number will be any good at it. The argument is that students need to learn coding because it's the "job of the future," but it really isn't. Plumbing, carpentry, auto repair—those are jobs of the future. Computer science is a field that's only existed since, oh yeah, 1822, but because someone with an education major and a clipboard doesn't know how to do it, it's new and critical and that somehow kids who were otherwise destined to work middle management at the local factory are going to be swept away in the magic of parsing algorithms and fixing buffer overflows. The mentality seems to be "Well if we only help one..." (which suggests right away that we're dealing with a religious cause an not an intellectual one), but the question is why you'd want to waste the time and energy of the other 99%. I get pushing STEM on students, and largely support the effort, which is why I'd be fine with a high school course like Practical Chemistry and Biology. (How to read a medicine bottle. Why that magic weight loss cure doesn't work. Why does hydrogen peroxide  disinfect an abrasion? Why does gasoline make your car run? Why do you need to change the oil?) But "coding" has limited value at best, and considering the quality of most high school "computer science" teachers, is a waste of time if not poison being poured into the STEM well. The best thing I can say about coding in schools is that casual observation suggests the only thing schools are really teaching is HTML, which, while a colossal waste of time, at least isn't actively harmful.)

The problem with iPads in every classroom is that they (i.e. the iPads) give the illusion of innovative learning without actually teaching students anything. In the writing world, there's this whole psychotic fascination among amateur writers with finding the perfect computer software. The thinking goes like this: I can't seem to write my book, but if I had [whatever], I would be a great writer! And so would-be writers buy new laptops, download programs like Scrivener and elaborate Word templates, and research the best brightness for their screens, and look for the best online dictionary and scour the Internet in search of productivity apps and sites, and maybe something that's cross-platform so they can work on their iPad, iPhone, AND computer, and they "build platforms" on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr—you get the idea. These people always buy Moleskine notebooks. Hundreds of hours go into these prodigies of activity, and these writers have the best literary command centers money can buy, and they go to their graves without having written a single word.

Writing is hard, just as teaching is hard and engaging students is hard. And this obsession with writing apps is a way to seem very productive—look at all I'm doing to make my career a success!—without actually doing the one thing guaranteed to make your writing a career a success: writing. Likewise, look at this wonderful tool I've given my classroom! Let's spend the next month learning how to use our iPads! Let's test new apps! Let's attempt cooperative noncompetitive group learning using digital [whatever]...

All this, when months, and by the time students graduate, years, could have been better spent practicing math with a pencil and reading a play by Shakespeare in a book.

What is perhaps most infuriating about the efforts by schools to infest their classrooms with iPads is that, on a very basic level, I think teachers, administrators, and students know that computers and tablets don't help, and oftentimes actually hinder, the learning process. But man, no ambitious school administrator's resume is complete without a bullet-point that says: "Wrote successful grant for 500 tablet computers."

The New York Times reported a few years ago on the habit of computer executives in Silicon Valley to send their children to technology-free schools. As one blog explained, "The tech-free teaching methods are designed to foster a lifelong love of learning and teach students how to concentrate deeply and master human interaction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills."

You'll find none of those benefits while smearing your finger on a glass screen. But everyone knows those benefits aren't really the point.

How Defense Officials Spent $150 Million in Afghanistan, When They Could Have Spent $0

My latest piece for The Week ran yesterday, in which I write about the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, a Defense Department office that was created to "do capitalism" in war zones. I don't want to spoil the ending, but they didn't do well and are presently under investigation for myriad accusations of fraud, waste, and abuse. The piece can be found here.


As part of this little personal blog experiment, I thought I'd share a bit of my process for this type of story. Earlier this week, I received a heads up that the allegations were about to be made public, and I pitched a story on it to my editor at The Week. I chose The Week because I knew the story was a good fit, and because I've written several pieces for them about waste in Afghanistan. Also, I really enjoy working with Ben, my editor, who's a really smart guy and an all-around good human being. I also appreciate that he doesn't waste time with my pitches. The "yes" or "no" happens quickly. It's hard to overstate how rare this is for an editor, let alone one for a major publication.

N.b. that in general, I don't mind when someone rejects a pitch. There are times when I know I've got a good story, and that editors are mistaken in rejecting it, but I deserve a lot of the blame when that happens. It's easy to get lazy on a pitch—especially a "sure thing"—and I've done a lot of good stories a disservice by not selling them with proper care, and as a result, not selling them at all. I actually think I've gotten worse about this over the years, and I am actively trying to correct that.

But a simple "no" is fine with me. A writer can't curl up into a ball every time he or she receives a rejection. What I do hate is having a query ignored. When editors don't respond to a pitch, a freelance writer is dead in the water. Do you try with another publication? Do you wait a little longer? This is especially problematic with time-sensitive stories. I realize that some editors are fielding 100 pitches a day, but simply as a professional courtesy, a "no" should be sent. Professional writers (usually) don't need "nice" no's. We just need a "no" so that we can move on—we know it's not personal.

In this case, Ben gave the pitch a quick approval, and I added it to Trello, where I track my ongoing jobs.

The story wasn't exactly Benghazi, so there's nothing particularly interesting or exciting regarding the journalistic legwork involved. I did research, contacted the relevant parties, called the Department of Defense for their side of things, contacted SIGAR for photographs, etc. Pretty much everything I write involves some form of this. Sometimes it's exhilarating and you speak with cool people you've only read about. Sometimes there's confrontation. Sometimes the story is all a big misunderstanding and something new and exciting takes its place. You do your best with the resources you have. In this case, nobody was going to fly me to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things, and so the telephone was my best tool available. (Note to editors: I'm happy to fly to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things if you'll send me.)

I wrote the piece over a couple of hours at Starbucks. My writing process is messy. I probably wrote a dozen ledes, and wrote several passages that didn't work or quite gel. The process doesn't exactly make me feel nervous, exactly, though it does induce some level of concerned anticipation. Why aren't the words flowing? Why aren't they perfect? Where does this fit? Why did I go into the business? And so on. Once the first draft is written, I feel a lot better about life in general. I let the story sit for a bit, and returned to it with fresh eyes, strengthening the poetry of the piece; cutting away the needless prose; rewriting weak or inelegant phrases, sentences, or passages; and just generally crossing my t's and dotting my lowercase-j's.

I filed the piece, and received an edit a few hours later. Ben is a great editor, and his suggested changes were good ones. I again revised and filed, and the mysterious machine at The Week did the rest. I have no idea what happens between filing the final version and its publication the next day. Once the piece does go live, I beat the drum on social media. I know there's a kind of gaucheness to promoting your own work, but I feel like it's a necessary part of the job and do it anyway. I have a good Twitter following and there's not yet been a stampede to the exits, so I assume I'm doing OK.

And there you have it.

(Image credit: An unnamed whistleblower in Afghanistan)

You Don't Want to be a Freelance Writer

Over at her blog, Yael Grauer has an excellent post discussing the "painful truths about freelancing." Anyone interested in doing this for a living would be well advised to read it. (Have your loved ones read it as well so that they understand why we're so miserable most of the time.)

This is a hard business. The loneliness of the job, which Yael describes, might be the worst part of it. It's not just about being around people—there's always Starbucks, where I tend to work most days—but being around people with whom you interact, and who get it. People who are fighting the same battles as you: the slow pay, the unanswered queries, the 22-year-old newbie editors who think they're Max Perkins, and so on. Unless you live in a media city, you're probably not going to be around such people. If I did my job from a life raft in the middle of the ocean, the psychological conditions would not be measurably different.

A Lovely Interview with Evernote

Earlier this month, Evernote asked me to participate in their "great writers" interview series. Though they might be premature in their (exceedingly kind) use of "great,"1 the interview itself was a lot of fun and, I hope, helpful to writers just starting out.

What’s your process for evolving an idea into something more?

Ideas are pretty useless in and of themselves. Everyone has ideas! I have to repress a cringe whenever someone says to an author, “I have a great idea for a book—say, maybe you could write it!” as though writing the book were a formality, and what was really needed was someone to come in and supervise with Great Ideas.

When I have an idea for something, I try to write it out. In other words, muddle through until I know whether or not there’s really an essay or book there. And when there’s not, I toss the idea and start over. (It hurts a lot to throw out a 25,000-word book proposal.) If the idea proves to have merit, I pitch it to whichever editor I think might be interested. The worst thing you can do is know that a story is weak, but sell it anyway. It adds tremendous pressure to the ensuing process.

Read the whole interview here. My sincere thanks to the lovely people at Evernote for thinking of me. And, having been sufficiently inspired, if you'd like a free month of Evernote Premium, click here.

1 One of my favorite lines on the subject comes from Rocky III, where Apollo Creed chides Rocky, saying, "You gotta remember now, you fight great but I'm a great fighter."