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writer's inspiration

Write like a Plumber. Tyler Cowen’s interview with Ross Douthat

Conversations with Tyler is my must listen podcast.

Tyler’s interviews have introduced me to disciplines I’d never consider exploring.

He speaks with urban planners, novelists, economists, tennis players, journalists, doctors – an incredible array of minds.

The final part of his interviews is called the Production Function. It’s where he asks his subject – What’s your productivity secret?

I found journalist Ross Douthat’s response helpful:

But there is a sense in which writing a column is — it’s like you’re a plumber. The toilet has to be fixed, so you fix the toilet. The column has to be written, so you write the column…

On approaching journalism with a tradesman’s mindset:

But journalism is a trade, right? I mean there is obviously an intellectual component. And we wouldn’t have been able to sit here and have this conversation with me babbling at you if I didn’t have intellectual pretensions. But the work of journalism — this is less true in the age of the internet — but it is linked to a very physical thing that comes out every week, or every month, or every day, and it comes out and it has to be filled.

And when there’s space to be filled, you write the column:

There is a place on the New York Times, on the printed New York Times, that would be blank or have an ad stuck on it if I didn’t write my column. And so you write the column. You write the column. And it’s useful for journalists to think about it this way — it’s useful for anyone inclined to over-romanticize or over-admire journalists to think about it this way.

On not sitting around waiting to become the next George R.R. Martin:

Certainly I like to imagine that — or at least something that sold as well as George R. R. Martin. But it also might be the case that if I had spent my life sitting around with my unfinished novels, I never would have produced anything interesting. And so it’s better to be a tradesman, and that’s at least part of how I think about my job.

Listen to the interview in its entirety here

Or read the transcript here

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amreading Commonplace Book writer's inspiration

Forgotten Photojournalists: Gerda Taro

Gerda putting in work

Before reading Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism, I’d never had an interest in photojournalism or photography. Photography was my fathers thing. Not mine.

I’d never read about Robert or Gerda in a text book. Or heard their names in a history lecture. No mention of them in photography class. Hell, Amazon didn’t even list the book in my recommendations.

But Gerda’s story is irresistible, as Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos‘ book proves. The story is a mix of art, love, and living for something beyond yourself. Of stepping forward even when all is unknown. Gerda and Robert’s photography helped usher in a new form of journalism – photojournalism.

But before she became a pioneer, Gerda, then named Gerta Pohorylle, was a Jewish refugee struggling to adapt to life in Paris. Managing the demands of a starting a career. Navigating falling in love. And resisting the rise of fascism in Europe at that time.

As Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos write of Gerda’s early time in Paris:

For a brief while, she and Ruth roomed with Fred Stein and his wife, Liselotte, who had an enormous apartment with extra bedrooms. Fred had originally studied to be a lawyer in Berlin, but when he was unable to practice under Nazi law, he too picked up a camera and was making a go of it professionally.

What good parties they all had there – putting colored bulbs in the lamps, dancing! Fred snapped pictures of Gerta, mugging away. Yes, being poor, a stranger in a strange city, was awful, but to have the solace of friends, all in the same situation, made it easier. Maybe that’s why, as Ruth put it, “we were all of the Left.” That is, they belonged to a loose collection of groups opposed to fascism and in favor of workers’ rights.

Gerta was never exactly a joiner. Her sympathies, her ideas, came from her years in Leipzig. She hated the Nazis and knew how dangerous it was becoming for her family. But she wasn’t one of those who debated every political point. She wasn’t part of the Communist Party, which took its direction from the Soviet Union. But she did care about social issues, about the future ahead. They all did.

For now, there was food and coffee at the Café du Dôme and talk with friends. And photographs. Above all, photographs.

Eyes of the World is an underrated gem. A historic and important book that belongs on the shelf of every historian, photographer, professor, and curious and wonderful soul out there.

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Commonplace Book

The Struggle

BRIAN KOPPELMAN: Was it important to you to become a better writer?

JEMELE HILL: Oh…

KOPPELMAN: Like, were you aware of that? Like I want to be better at this?

HILL: It was, it was everything.

KOPPELMAN: See this is huge for people cause’ everyone’s always asking how do I get connected? How do I get an agent? How do I get the next thing? That’s only like this much of it. Little tiny bit of it.

HILL: Yeah.

KOPPELMAN: The thing is like, how do I get good?

HILL: Correct.

KOPPELMAN: How do I keep going? And so you attacked that part with rigor you think?

HILL: Yeah, that was, I mean, I’m such a journalism nerd in general, but a writing nerd also, and so I was forever trying to connect, you know, how do I find my voice, you know, I acted like you know, I was a detective looking for it not realizing.

KOPPELMAN: So inspiring.

HILL: Yeah.

KOPPELMAN: You were consciously trying to find…

HILL: Oh totally.

KOPPELMAN: What’s my original sound?

HILL: Yes, yes.

KOPPELMAN: How do I get the sound in my head, the sound that’s with my friends. I mean you know, it’s what Emerson, Ralph Emerson talked about, like if you, you know, the secret voice that you hear, that you know is out there. That if you can somehow get that expressed.

HILL: That was my struggle.

KOPPELMAN: The battle all writers go through.

HILL: That was my struggle.

Attention writing nerds! Journalism nerds! Story nerds! Nerd nerds!

Brian Koppleman’s The Moment interview with Jemele Hill is on point. Encouragement and truth, all in around an hour.

Listen to conversation in full.