The Makings of a Writer, Part II


                                      In the last post I mentioned that I had spent the last ten years writing. Not just once in a while, but every day. That is true. Like a basketball player who wants to get better at free throws and spends his days in the gym, I “practiced” every day by writing whenever I was not working at my day job (acquiring and editing books). The more I wrote, the better I got. The better I got, the harder I worked at it. I developed the ability to do in days and weeks what took months to do before. I wrote the first draft of The Rumsfeld Way in 33 days—and never missed a day of work. 

Still, I never thought that I actually reached the status of “writer.” I thought that, like success, becoming a writer was more of a journey than a destination. The truth is that I was afraid that if I stopped writing or skipped even a day—any talent that I had been given or developed would simply  vanish, and I would be back at square one (I shuddered at the thought of it).       

You might have guessed from the artwork above that my favorite writer is Mark Twain. Of course Twain had nothing to do with the kind of books that I do. William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature.” He did it all. He was a humorist, author, publisher—he even published President Ulysses S. Grant’s celebrated autobiography (Grant finished four days before his death, and was the last president, with the exception of Bill Clinton, to write his memoirs without a ghostwriter). I keep first editions of four of his books right here on my desk: Roughing It, Tramp Abroad, The Gilded Age, The Innocents Abroad and The New Pilgrim’s Progress (the last one has two titles but is one book). Old first editions are my passion and these  graying volumes inspire me. I feel fortunate to have such incredible pieces of American antiquity. I also have early editions of Life on the Mississippi and Prince and the Pauper. Twain wrote so many books and articles that no one knows how many works he actually wrote. 

There are many realities of being an author. First, the reality that it takes thousands of hours to hone one’s craft, even if you are born with a gift. Also, one must reconcile himself or herself to the fact that much of what gets written does not get published. I have written opinion pieces that have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Barron’s, The Los Angeles Times, etc. However, I have written an entire book and many dozens of op ed pieces that never saw the light of day. I did not regard those as wasted opportunities, but as practice— true-to-life lessons that helped me to become a better writer.  

The last thing a writer needs is luck. I became a published book author because I was lucky enough to be asked byThe Wall Street Journal to write an op. ed. on Jack Welch’s selection of a successor. In that piece, my old boss at McGraw-Hill discovered what would become my first book, The Jack Welch Lexicon of Leadership. In the article I had written that Welch, In leading GE, “had created his own business lexicon.” That got my boss at the time running into my office, announcing excitedly, “that’s a book…the lexicon of management is a book.” I said “Welch hates the word management, he likes leadership.” That was indeed a book, one that did well, as did my next four books. I was lucky. I knew a lot about Welch because of all of the books I had edited on him, so I was in the right place at the right time. My last book on Welch—Jack Welch and the 4E’s of Leadership, still sells to this day, largely because it is the only book ever written on the leadership model that helped make GE into the world’s greatest talent machine. 

But when I learned that Welch got some of his best ideas from Peter Drucker, I was determined to go right  to the source and do a book on him. Getting Drucker to agree to cooperate is a story in itself, one that will soon be posted on the home page of this site when I post the introduction, entitled “In Search of Drucker,” in the next few days. Stay tuned. He may be no Mark Twain…but Peter Drucker is known as “the father of modern management.”    

The Makings of a Writer

 We have spent so much time on the process of publishing, that I feel that I have neglected an important part of the entire publishing experience: the writing part. First, it is important that you not forget why you are writing the book in the first place. For it to really work, you must have a genuine passion for writing. As I was writing this piece, I came across a posting by bestselling author Seth Godin (author of the upcoming book, Tribes, published by Portfolio). In a compelling piece called I need to Build a House, What Kind of Hammer Should I Buy, he urges people to fall in love with what they do. He’s got it exactly right.

That’s because the greatest reward of writing—or doing anything that requires talent and experience— is in the writing itself.

If you don’t agree, you probably won’t be a first rate writer. I avoid authors who say they write for the money. That’s the worst reason to become a writer. I have always loved to write. Although I have edited business books for 25+ years, I have been an author for just under ten years (and the first four were frustrating, as I was just spinning my wheels). 

To become an effective writer, I had to turn my passion into a discipline. By writing every day for the last ten years, I became a writer the hard way. No, I became an author the right way. I wrote two New York Times op eds on vacation—ask my poor wife Nancy—although I still do not consider myself a real writer (as you will read in the next post). 

The other part of it involves something more pragmatic—the when and where you write. I have always been a morning guy when it comes to doing anything, especially writing. I can pop out of bed by five a.m. and be at my desk, ready to go, coffee in hand, long before 5:30. With twin four-year old boys tearing up the house, it’s the quietest time of the day. I head to my desk, which is oversized and hand-built —a luxury I afforded myself after I wrote my fifth book. And yes, I keep a 1934 Corona on that same desk, one much like the one above.     

I can get a lot done before anyone stirs in the house. The key is to keep at it. And not freak out if you work for two hours and write only a paragraph. Sometimes the right paragraph is worth its weight in gold. And learn how to write with one twin on your left arm and the other on your right. Now that’s something that takes real practice.

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