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James Michener’s Nomadic Pursuit of Depth

May 11th, 2017 · 16 comments

Method Writing

When James Michener was writing his epic 1978 novel, Chesapeake, he didn’t have to travel far for inspiration. At the time he lived in an old house, nestled on 25 acres, near the Choptank river on a creek that emptied into the eastern waters of Chesapeake Bay.

“He loved the sounds of the place,” explained Michener friend and collaborator Errol Lincoln Uys. “He would take long walks out to the end of the dock and stand there while he tried to figure something [about the book] out. He loved the sounds of the migrating ducks. He loved the nature of the place.”

By the time a couple from Baltimore bought the house from Michener in 1995, the novelist was long gone. In the early 1980s, he moved to Austin, to immerse himself in the rhythms of the Lone Star State while writing Texas.

These were not the only times Michener used location to inspire his work. After Texas, he moved temporarily to Sitka, Alaska, to work on his novel Alaska, and his original epic, Hawaii, was written during a period when Michener lived on the island.

There’s something aspirational about this idea of deploying grand gestures (to use a term from Deep Work) to push forward creative endeavors. I’m bringing it up here, however, because I think there’s a subtle point lurking in Michener’s nomadism that’s relevant to knowledge work in general…

Neuronal Productivity

Michener intuited that the human brain is not adapted to perform hour after hour of demanding abstract thinking. To finish his 1000-page novels required more than simply adding “write for five hours today” to a to-do list, nestled between more mundane tasks.

Michener knew he had to nudge and cajole his brain into a state where it was willing to do the herculean cogitation he needed from it. Dramatic location changes, tuned to the specific deep task at hand, was one of his core strategies for this purpose.

But here’s the thing: when it comes to hard mental tasks, there’s nothing special about fiction writing. Whether you’re painting a picture, writing computer code, or crafting a new marketing strategy — sometimes sweeping and smartly calibrated efforts are needed to get your brain ready to do what you need from it.

Clear plans and good intentions (to my chagrin) are not always enough.

This reality is largely ignored by the world of professional knowledge work: a setting that likes to imagine the human brain is a general-purpose task computer that can simply be fed little nuggets of effort (through emails and slack channels and end-of-meeting action items) to churn through each day, with the hope that these systematic efforts will add up to something significant.

But this approach ignores the messy reality of our gray matter, which is much more idiosyncratic and context dependent than the silicon processors we strive to mimic.

(For more on the danger of embracing this arbitrary brain as computer metaphor, see Douglas Rushkoff’s thought-provoking book, Present Shock.)

There is, I suspect, great value to be gained for both individuals and organizations that are enlightened enough to consider this more holistic form of productivity (what we might call, neuronal productivity?) when it comes to extracting value from human brains.

Michener was on to something. Deep work is hard. If you want to produce big things, you need to be willing to go big with your work habits.

(The above picture of James Michener and Errol Lincoln Uys at Michener’s Chesapeake home was taken by Uys.)

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A few weeks ago, a group of producers from a fascinating startup called Mentorbox spent a day at my house in Silver Spring, MD, filming me talk about my fourth book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The interview was for their subscription service in which they send you a new business book each month, along with detailed notes and both audio and video interviews with the author that dive deep into the core ideas. I was really impressed and honored to be involved. You can find out more here.

16 thoughts on “James Michener’s Nomadic Pursuit of Depth

  1. Thomas says:

    Have any good spots to go big in DC?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Actually, where Michener lived on the eastern shore is only 90 minutes away from DC, perhaps I should follow his example and buy some land out there…

  2. Jeet says:

    Correct assessment intend to put it in practice
    Please recheck the last links as well as your fourth book title

  3. The Mentor box links in the last paragraph don’t work…

  4. Study Hacks says:

    All the links seem to work for me…not sure what the issue is…

  5. Brenda Horrigan says:

    Link to MentorBox didn’t initially work for me–but it did after I paused my web app that blocks trackers. In my case, Ghostery for Chrome (http://download.cnet.com/Ghostery-for-Chrome/3000-33362_4-75182225.html) So if links aren’t working, check and see if you have any sort of blocker installed on your browser.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Cal, I’ve been a longtime fan of your blog and books, from my final college days through graduate school, and now in my job as an assistant professor. I am also a woman, and it’s striking to me how overwhelmingly many of the people you profile on your blog and in your most recent book are men (the present blog post included). I’m curious what’s behind this rather large gender disparity. I would be very interested to see you not only feature more women as examples in your writings, but also address the gender issue directly. Are your principles less suited to women? Are women less drawn to thinking about productivity in terms close to yours? Do much fewer of the women that you contact agree to be profiled by you? Thanks.

    1. Rachel says:

      Great questions! I’m hoping Cal answers this.

    2. Anonymous says:

      I agree with this post. I also am a female assistant professor (in a STEM field). I have been reading Cal’s work throughout my postdoc and tenure track career this far.

      I think more female representation would be welcomed. Also, I’d love to hear his advice on managing work with family life. I have a young child myself and doing deep work to publish papers/submit grants is a big part of my job.

      1. Beryl says:

        Agreed. I’ve been grappling with these questions for a very long time, and while I often read and come back to this blog, I’ve become increasingly less hopeful that they will be addressed here. I think the issues facing female academics, productivity, work-life balance, etc are very specific and often unique from that of men. They need to be thought through and articulated as such, and while it’s unfair to come to any assumptions about Cal’s thoughts on this, it seems the blog is more concerned with the ‘general’ experience. That this seems to subconsciously or inadvertently exclude or overlook women’s particular challenges and experiences is another (albeit problematic) point.

    3. Study Hacks says:

      I’m working to better equalize the gender balance in my next project (I got a lot of letters about this): my sense is that at least half my readers are women, so I agree a better balance will make my writing more broadly relatable.

      As for the gender issues surrounding productivity more general, this is likely a fascinating direction. I’m not sure if I’m the right person to explore it? Would be interested to hear from people with thoughts on it…

  7. This seems to be a common theme amongst the great writers of their day…thinking London, Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc…all tended to live out their adventures in some way shape or form. Even present day authors such as Grisham and Dan Brown lived their stories before writing them. Perhaps this is the “method acting” version for writers? Daniel Day Lewis of course is the first that comes to mind – imagine him as an author writing “method actor” style…quite fascinating, indeed!

  8. Saurabh Shrivastava says:

    Please tell, how can a student preparing for a rigorous competitive exam apply the technique of “Grand Gestures” ?

    1. Joseph Beckenbach says:

      Saurabh, I found that changing study locations helped me. One time, when at a conference a few weeks before one exam, I paid for two extra nights out of my own pocket and holed up in my hotel room to study.

      I’m about to begin a “smaller” Grand Gesture for work on a side hustle, by regularly going to a local cafe, and buying a drink for the morning as I start work. I’m well-known for pinching pennies so hard their area doubles, so this is a distinct behavioral and environmental change for me.

  9. The Mentor box links in the last paragraph don’t work…

  10. Study Hacks says:

    If the Mentorbox link doesn’t work you can just directly type in mentorbox.com. I think there was some sort of link redirection above that is fouling up some pop-up blockers…

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