NPF: INHERENT ADVANTAGE

I'm about halfway through the new Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness) book Command and Control and as I expected the experience has been both enjoyable and frustrating. It's enjoyable of course because it's a well written book about a topic I love. It's frustrating because about eight years ago I decided to write this book.

In a fit of New Years resolutioning or some sort of attempt at personal and professional growth I sat down and wrote an outline for an entire book on the history of the Cold War nuclear buildup and, as Schlosser calls it, the illusion of safety. While obviously it was not the same as Command and Control I can't help but note the similarities as I read through it. Despite the similarities in our ideas, Schlosser's book has one overwhelming advantage: he actually wrote his.

This is the second time in the last few years I've had this experience – Gregg Grandin's Fordlandia was one of my earliest "Someone really needs to write a book about this, maybe I should try" moments. And I'm starting to understand more clearly that this is why at 35 my life is effectively half over and I've managed to accomplish absolutely nothing; for every decent idea I've ever had I think, plot, research, conceptualize, sketch, and ruminate…but I never actually do it. It would be nice to be able to identify the reason. It could be any number of things: fear of failure, laziness, risk aversion, self-doubt, etc. But every time I successfully convince myself that no one else would find it interesting and besides I don't know anyone in the publishing industry so it makes no sense to devote the time to doing it. Instead I devote that time to more productive pursuits like Netflix.

And that, for all you young readers out there, is how you end up old and stuck living in central Illinois.

This kind of thinking appeals to the rational part of my brain, which is the entirety of it. Investing a ton of resources, both time and financial, into something with no guaranteed payoff (and perhaps not even half-decent odds of payoff) is the kind of decision from which it is very easy to dissuade ourselves. For a while I tried to convince myself that it would be good for me just to get the sense of completion that comes from taking something from the idea stage to a finished product regardless of whether it was "successful" or not. Unfortunately my mind really doesn't work that way; maybe someone else can take pleasure in writing something that no one else will ever read, but not me. Besides I already tried that, it was called writing a dissertation. *rimshot*

Anyway, let this be a lesson to anyone out there looking to be unsuccessful. Take all of the things you've thought about doing, talk yourself out of doing any of them, and then sit back and watch other people succeed. I'm not going to lie, it's really easy.

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43 Responses to “NPF: INHERENT ADVANTAGE”

  1. Mike Says:

    Where'd Ed go? Any minute you sound like you'll be patting successful folks on the back as if they're Randian producers.

  2. Pennelope Pennebaker Says:

    Your "rimshot" was going to be the basis of my response. But, lemm'e remind you of the horrendous number of ABD out there, that's not you.

  3. Tommy Says:

    Amen, brother.

    So, do you recommend the book?

  4. TPD Says:

    Perhaps appealing to your logical side, but would Command and Control be published were it not for more popular fare like Fast Food Nation?

  5. Jimcat Says:

    In reply to Mike: I don't see this as Randian. There's still an element of luck involved. For everyone who wrote and researched a book that got published and was successful, there are plenty more who wrote and researched books that got much less of a reception.

    But if you never write the book *at all*, your chances of success drop from slim to zero.

  6. blahedo Says:

    A further question would be: would that book, that exact book, have been publishable if it hadn't been by Eric "Fast Food Nation Etc" Schlosser?

    Not that I really want to add to the weight of antimotivation. I bet you have another couple books in the mental hopper. You should write one! You're a great writer and deserve to get published in traditional channels. (Which probably wouldn't hurt wrt tenure, either.)

  7. eric Says:

    For what it's worth, I just finished Command and Control and really enjoyed it.

  8. Nick Says:

    This post reminds me of one of my favorite Cracked articles of all time:
    http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

  9. Sarah Says:

    You could have submitted that outline + about 3 chapters and gotten a contract. Everything I've heard about NF publishing is that it is a different animal from Fiction publishing and is a lot easier to get a book proposal read and accepted if you have a good idea and a coherent way to present the information. Once you've got that, well, contracts are good motivation tools.

  10. John Danley Says:

  11. c u n d gulag Says:

    When I go to my public library (I used to buy most of my books, but being unemployed for almost 5 years has really put a crimp in my book-buying abilities – a terminal crimp ;-), I see that, while there are thousands and thousands of writers, there are very few real authors.

    On your blog, Ed, you're an author.
    Maybe books aren't in your system.
    Blogging surely is!!!
    And many of us love you for it.

    Everyone who's known me, has always told me, "You should write books!"
    Yeah.
    Like that's easy.
    Writing books and long articles is hard.
    Very, very hard!

    Besides, I prefer spit-balling wise-ass comments from the back of the internet classroom! :-)

  12. Patti Says:

    Well, if you have an idea that involves the labor force, let me know if you'd like a co-author. I'll have a fancy Ivy League degree in May that I'd like to whore out.

  13. HeidiB Says:

    Ed, you should watch "Big Bang Theory" – Penny is working through a similar situation. Seriously, you teach people, including us, and that's a big deal. And I haven't heard you say "I was raised by angry crazy people," which has been my excuse for not doing tons of stuff.

  14. Misterben Says:

    I'll tell ya what book I would buy tomorrow. I would buy a book that you wrote wherein you took 8-12 G&T columns from the last few years and expanded on them, including more detail of the history of the subject matter, and then talked about how that issue evolved in the months and years after you first wrote about it.

  15. waspuppet Says:

    I'm 49 and I just got my first book contract last year. I can't compare fiction to nonfiction, but I can say that you're not through getting ideas. I think what you really need is an idea that you are absolutely certain people will buy. It was and is inconceivable to me that no one will buy this book, and that's what kept me going. And if no one would publish it, my attitude was "Well, I'll publish it myself and keep all the money."

    That's why I didn't stop at three chapters and a proposal, but kept writing the book as if I had a contract. Which, in turn, came in handy when my then-prospective publisher said "Well, we might be interested if you had a chapter that examined such-and-such" and I was able to say "Oh, you mean something like this?"

    I'm rambling a bit, and I can't pretend that I wasn't helped by a 6-month stint of unemployment and a couple months tagging along after my wife on a retreat she was offered because she's brilliant and semi-famous. (I also can't pretend that after a certain amount of time I look at what I've got and think "Who fucking cares?") But the reason I kept at it was not because I'm a superior being with a stronger work ethic. There just wasn't any fking way no one was going to like this idea.

    So get an idea that you like enough, and you'll keep at it.

  16. Andrew Says:

    @c u n d gulag: I'm doing fine financially, and I still get 90% of my books at the library, because I don't want to keep them after I'm done with them. And they're free. Win-win.

  17. Major Kong Says:

    I'll have to check that one out.

    You might also like The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman and 15 Minutes by L. Douglas Keeney.

  18. slimlove Says:

    I have like 5 book projects in the back of my head that I plan to get to…someday. You know, someday when I'm not basically working 2 jobs and dealing with a bunch of other stuff. Which is an excuse, sure, but sometimes you have to give yourself a break. Writing a book takes a lot of energy and time, even more so if you need to go do primary research somewhere. And as someone who works in publishing and spends a lot of time trying to get authors to keep to their deadlines, believe me when I tell you that publishers get very cranky when they contract you on 3 chapters and then you take forever to finish, especially if it's on a timely topic and they were hoping to capitalize on a zeitgeist or get out ahead of competing books. So you have to really consider if you have the kind of time and energy to devote to the book process, and to be realistic about how long it might take you to finish.

    Other commenters are correct that fiction and non-fiction publishing are very different beasts. As are small press, academic, and trade publishing. There are a lot of options, and it can be a challenge to figure out what is right for you and your project. Anyway, Ed, if you ever want advice about publishing, I'd be happy to contribute whatever knowledge I can.

  19. Fmguru Says:

    Ed, there's still plenty of weird, unplumbed Cold War weirdness just sitting around waiting for someone to package it and present it. I want a book about the last decade of the CW, starting with Reagan's innauguration, going through the crazy ideologoues he put in charge of US strategic policy (and touching on things like Reagan's stated belief that you could recall nuclear missiles once they were fired, and the suggestion that I heard that he proposed SDI after a screening of the Matthew Broderick hacker classic WARGAMES kept him up all night trying to figure out a way out of Mutual Assured Destruction, which he'd never really understood until he saw that movie), hitting the nadir of the Soviets being convinced that we were about to launch a pre-emptive strike during the 1983 Able Archer exercise, through things like the Farewell Dossier (and the Siberian Pipeline explosion that resulted, and the subsequent elevation to power of Mikhail Gorbachev) and that one guy who refused to turn his launch key in Moscow when their system glitched and showed an massive inbound nuclear attack and Reagan's conversion into peacenik over the complaints of his cold warrior advisors in his second term (due, allegedly, to Nancy's desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize, or at least get Ronnie into the history books as something other than a warmongering idiot) – plus everything that was occuring on the other side of the Iron Curtain (which I'm sure was even crazier and more deranged than the US and NATO) now that those archives are open and the principals are talking. Shit, you could get half a book out of just going over the lunacy of the various MX missile basing strategies (dense pack? rails and underground tunnels? the midgetman?). I've seen bits and pieces of all this stuff, scattered across poorly-sourced magazine and newspaper articles. COMMAND & CONTROL isn't the end of that road, Ed – it's the beginning.

    My never-to-be-done dream project is a book about microstates – those tiny little postage-stamp sized countries like Andorra and Monaco and that Pacific island nation that literally mining itself out of existence and that other one that's sinking under global warming and Kowloon Walled City and Sealand and those weird little militia compounds that claim to be autonomous and the Neutral Zones on the Saudi/Iraqi border (do those still exist?) and Caribbean tax havens and that nutcase who claims sovereign rights over a patch of land on the moon and on and on, and just trying to square their existence with balance of power politics and IR theory and the Westphalian system. All these weird tiny little anomalies in the international system – why? What purpose do they serve? Where do they come from? Where will they go?

  20. J. Dryden Says:

    I really, really, really, really, really, really hesitate to bring this up, but dammit, I'm going to be altruistic: It may be that the reason you have less-to-no impetus to write this stuff is because you spend a large amount of the finite time/creative energy you have on G&T. Lord Goddamn Knows, I do not want you to stop, or slacken, but I can speak from experience that when I was cranking out my blog on a regular basis, I had absolutely nothing left over for other stuff. And your stuff is much, much better researched (i.e. time/effort consuming.) So…

    Am I suggesting that you quit G&T or go on hiatus? I am not. (Glances around at other G&T regulars, keeping an eye peeled for tar, feathers, pitchforks, etc.) But perhaps there's a way to make G&T the, as it were, rough draft. If you have a larger theme, introduce it–"So, here's the thing: Henry Ford tried to make his own country this one time!"–and offer sample stabs at chapters as occasional entries. The advantage to this approach would be an audience whose opinions you respect (well, some of us–well, me) giving you constructive feedback *and* "Oh My God This Is Awesome" support as you go.

    In other words, use this venue and your engaged, invested readers to start and develop a larger project. I imagine we'd all be entirely happy if you did.

    I completely and utterly Get what you're saying here–how merely having a Ph.D. and a TT job is not, in fact, an achievement but instead feels like a ground floor with a stuck elevator, and how being where you are (geographically isolated in a hellscape of misogynist bumper-stickers and baby-slapping dropouts ahead of you in line at the Circle K) makes everything that much worse. Been there, and still am there, in many ways. Really, really get how "loneliness" syncs up with "worthlessness" to produce a spectacularly mutually-reinforcing, heady brew of "Fuck everything there is, has ever been, and will ever be."

    So I offer this proposal *if* a possible solution or course of action is desired. If not, and you just want to be heard, you have been. For reals.

  21. Daphne Says:

    35 is halfway through life? There's a reason I made up the expression "Youth trumps brilliance." You're a prime example of it.

  22. John Says:

    35 is nowhere close to old. Maybe to people under 30. In my book, you're not really an adult adult until 35. Probably closer to 40. You're a kid.

  23. Major Kong Says:

    At 51 I'm supposedly "middle aged", but how many 102-year-old men do you know?

  24. Nate Says:

    I second Misterben's idea! That would be a really great read! You should think about that. :)

  25. Peggy Says:

    I'm with J. Dryden on this one– you may be running out of creative energy due to the taxing nature of a daily blog, but I am selfishly very much against you stopping! I really enjoy creative writing but have found that teaching sucks away all of my mental energy, to the point where I'm verrrry unlikely to do any writing in the evenings when there's all this Netflix to watch instead. When I do get around to it, I work on writing the things I wish existed for me to read, but having feedback from a writing partner is a huge source of renewal for me; I haven't got the patience to write a whole chapter, much less a whole book without any feedback/praise. And I would very much enjoy a book-length Gin and Tacos, or ongoing series of linked posts…

    Would you ever considering self-publishing via smash words, kindle, etc.? I understand there's a woman who makes ~30k/month with her self-published Bigfoot erotica, so maybe throw in a couple chapters of that in between Cold War stories.

    Also, I would totally try to get a bowdlerized collection of "Ed vs. Logical Fallacies" adopted as an e-text for my AP classes. I would put that shit on Donors Choose (our current official classroom budgeting tool) tomorrow.

  26. Major Kong Says:

    "self-published Bigfoot erotica"

    Rule 34

  27. Weird Old Tip Says:

    "Besides, I prefer spit-balling wise-ass comments from the back of the
    internet classroom." –c u n d gulag
    Hey, that was the job I wanted! Anyway, books are pretty much over, aren't they?
    At least, that's the way I felt when Snooki's autobiography came out. That was just my own personal tipping point: I bet that everyone who has ever thought about writing a book has had a moment when they said to themselves 'It is time to leave the trees alone.' Digital media, that's the ticket, right up until the big solar flare knocks out the internet. One thing I will never forget: when the high rents squeezed out all the funky used bookstores in Harvard Square a number of years ago, they sold off all they could & finally there were dumpsters filled with books sitting there for a few weeks before being hauled off, with undergraduates rummaging through them desultorily. I realized then that my book collection was not going to provide any security for my retirement.

  28. middle seaman Says:

    Kind of late to the game, but one thing is awfully clear. Excuses have no effect. You either try or you don't. Every attempt may end in failure. No attempts are a failure with no chance of success.

    Don't like your place, move! Want to write a book, start writing it. Get of your a$$ moving.

  29. Joseph Nobles Says:

    This happens to me as well, but in screenplay writing. I've seen ideas of mine realized on the screen a lot – not whole screenplay, but little scenes and developments. I'd had a notion of zombies climbing up on each other to "ant" over obstacles for a while, and saw it in "World War Z" trailers. I've got a goofy horror comedy about brains being physically replaced by a contraption that would visually act a lot like what I just saw in the last episode of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D."

    This stuff happens. What I try to think after cursing and screaming is that 1) this is totally different from writing a song so good someone else wrote it first (which I've also done!), and b) I had the idea and it was good enough for others to have it and execute on it. I'm on a good, creative track and more will come. And then back to the grindstone.

  30. Xynzee Says:

    What Dryden said.

    You've got a bucket load of work you can mine already just now to tie it all together — example "He Died with a Falafel in His Hand" which is a series of vignettes of shared housing.

    You've got a fan base who will purchase ie us. Which gives you some leverage with publishers.

    Now stop feeling sorry for yourself and get your finger out and start writing. Otherwise we descend en masse into Central Illinois and beat you senseless. You won't be hard to find: 35, 6'+, drives a Cayman. ;)

  31. JD Says:

    Many others have said it, but Ed, first just publish an expanded best-of book. That will sell some copies to your fan base and get you author cred (at least in the eyes of those who don't understand what goes into writing a blog for 10 years). After that, I bet people would be more willing to listen to your proposals for a grand single-topic book.

  32. don Says:

    I meant to tell you this the other day but I've procrastinated again; story of my life, eh? I'm 58. When I was 35 I thought surely the regrets at lost chances I had started to stack up – good ideas gone nowhere, little projects other people monetized to great effect, job offers I indifferently declined (Microsoft in 1987? naaah, commute's too long) – would surely kill me by the time I got really old, say around 58. But you know what? They don't. Instead I like what I do have, none of which I thought back then would ever come to me or stay with me: a beloved partner and friends, a house, a job I don't particularly hate with people I like that pays me more than I need, and the functioning legs to walk up the hill for sunset.

    In any case, you are writing a book, and this post was about chapter millionty-twelve, or however many posts you've cranked out. I haven't read Command and Control and probably won't – but in a hundred years, all the years of Gin and Tacos will be more wide-ranging and illuminating of our miserable age than Fast Food Nation.

  33. geoff Says:

    @Major Kong, my 50th birthday will be next week. I figure 50 is approximately middle aged, as I started being an adult at about 25 (which means YOU'RE ONLY 10 YEARS IN, ED) 25 years ago, and in about another 25 years I'll be getting near the end. Or maybe not. So get off my lawn.

    Ed, I'm sure you're too intelligent to take advice from random strangers on the internet, but what the hell. You are younger than you feel right now. You're single and have no dependents from what I can tell by reading here. I would argue that your work on the blog is not the problem, it's your soul-sucking day job. Come up with something you really want to write about, try and find a savvy literary agent, take some time off from teaching and work on it. I know that's really easy for me to say here, but I feel like you're way too young to have regrets about not doing something that there's still plenty of time for you to do. You could be Thomas Frank with jokes!!

  34. geoff Says:

    PS, don't forget comics!

  35. Mo Says:

    Used to be, getting a book published was a badge of accomplishment – or at least tenacity and connections. That Luck thing again.

    All together now: The Internet Has Changed All That.

    Publish a Kindle collection of your blog posts. It worked for PZ Myers, why not you?

    Retrospective collections are a great resource, especially in non-print keyword searchable form. All right there in one neat pile, no blog mining or wayback machine required.

  36. sluggo Says:

    Off topic but remotely related. The TV show 'The Americans' returns to FX next month. Cold War spy show set in early 1980's DC. The protagonists are Russians spies posing as Americans.

    Not a bad way to spend sixty minutes in front of a TV.

  37. sluggo Says:

    A 'Best of Gin and Tacos' has been already written and just needs to be assembled. I cannot think of a better gift to conservative family and coworkers.

    A pants shitting gift for all occasions.

  38. Jason Says:

    For a guy who has been lucky enough to get a tenure track job, you sure do complain a lot.

  39. Jacquie Says:

    What Misterben and J. Dryden said. I took a job in the financial services industry after getting my creative writing degree, and now I write so damn much at work that I have no creative energy to write anything on my own time (except for internet comments). If you comb through your archives, take some of the exceptional writing that you've already done, and expand/expound on them, the book will practically write itself. Maybe you need to open the floor to submissions of "posts we'd like to see more of," or some such.

  40. sookabilly Says:

    "Time is gone, story's over, thought I'd something more to say." Thanks Pink Floyd. Fixating on that was what helped me finish my first book. That and turning 60 last year is helping me on one today.

    So grab a spliff and put on Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe that'll help, and sounds like more fun than vexing about it for another 25 years.

  41. RosiesDad Says:

    Ed:

    I'm with J Dryden here. You prove your talent and ability here on this page with frequent, well thought out and researched posts. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

    So ability isn't the issue.

    The other thing we have seen, in the past couple of months, is that you get frustrated, depressed and you stifle yourself.

    You could write a book if YOU decide to do it. Or you could give in and monetize G&T (as Cole did with Balloon Juice and many others have as well.) But YOU have to decide to do it.

    I can tell you that if a new title on a political or politically humorous subject written by Edward Burmila arrived at Amazon, I would buy and read it. Because you are at least as funny and certainly as insightful as PJ O'Rourke and I've bought and enjoyed many of his books.

    So maybe that needs to be your resolution for 2014. Get off your ass and start a project. Dedicate a realist amount of time to it on a daily/weekly basis and do it. Just like you did your dissertation. In the end, if you see it through, you will be glad you did.

  42. Amanda Says:

    I have always wanted to write a book about my life, but the theme I would use is similar to the books that have been written about people who manage to escape poverty/etc. in Appalachia and I'm afraid it would be too derivative. Plus I could never afford to take the time off to do the research and writing necessary for a book like that. Too much risk.

  43. Mike Says:

    Well I am 53 and I can tell you that your mild dismay will turn into virulent self-loathing if you don't do something you can be proud of. And, yes, it gets easier.