Who: Ozan Varol
Claim to fame: Ozan is an author, tenured law professor, and rocket scientist. He is the author of The Democratic Coup d’État, served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission, and declared a public enemy in Turkey as a result of the arguments now in his book. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, BBC, TIME, CNN, Washington Post, and more.
Why’d we pick him, in ten words: Ozan is one of the most interesting writers online today.
Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?
I dedicate my mornings to reading and writing. I write early in the morning, edit later in the day, and often avoid email and other equally distracting extracurricular activities until late afternoon.
What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?
All of the above.
I change my writing tools frequently, often when writing the same piece. I usually start with a pen and paper. I use the Livescribe 3 pen to automatically transfer what I write on paper to Google Docs. When I feel like I’ve hit a wall, I’ll copy and paste everything to OmmWriter or Writer’s Room on my Macbook.
I find that a change in the writing tool, much like a change in physical location, gets my neurons re-firing, reduces complacency, and stimulates creativity.
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?
I’ll alternate between silence and listening to the “focus” channel on brain.fm. That channel often puts me in the zone, particularly when I listen to it with noise-cancelling headphones. It tells my brain, “Okay, it’s time to get some serious writing done.”
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?
I read. And, by read, I don’t mean emails and Facebook status updates. I read good writing by authors who are far better at their craft than I am. I consider this a form of mental stretching. When I write immediately upon waking up (as I used to do), my work product would be too rigid. I like to fill my mind with good writing before I start putting words on paper.
I wrote much of my new book, The Democratic Coup d’État, at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. I would show up there at 9 am right when it opened, walk through the aisles, pick up 5-6 books, and head to the café on site. When I was stuck or needed inspiration, I’d leaf through the books. Inevitably, I’d come across a passage or a beautifully constructed sentence that would jolt me back into a creative trance.
How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?
I used to set daily goals, but I don’t any more because I would end up feeling lousy if I didn’t reach whatever goal I set. These days, on a good day, I’ll write 1,000 words, about half of which see the light of day.
I don’t write every day. Since I’m a law professor, some of my work days are devoted solely to teaching, attending committee meetings, and mentoring students.
You’re fluent in English and Turkish. Does being multilingual help your writing process—perhaps when you’re searching for just the right word? Or does it have the opposite effect, making the writing process more complicated in some ways?
I grew up in a family of non-English speakers, learned English as a second language, and came to the United States at 17 sporting a thick accent. I had a limited vocabulary and many of the common English idioms made zero sense to me.
For example, for several weeks in college, I assumed “hook up” meant meeting someone, not having a romantic relationship with them. This made for a particularly embarrassing moment when I told a group of friends that I hooked up with 15 people in one week (which promptly earned me the undeserved nickname, “Turkish Delight”).
I was an astrophysics major in college, so I didn’t do much writing. Consequently, when I started writing seriously, my toolkit was limited and the learning curve was steep.
Despite its challenges, being multilingual also has its advantages. It opens your eyes up to the world, breaks habitual patterns of thinking and writing, and helps develop empathy. It also exposes you to nuanced vocabularies that different cultures use to depict the world. For example, the Eskimos have 50 words to describe different types of snow, which provide a richness you can’t attain when speaking about snow in English.
What’s your process for editing your own work if you have one?
I need to step away from what I wrote before I can edit it intelligently. After I’ve done my share of writing in the morning, I’ll work out for about a half hour and then head into a barrel sauna we have in our backyard.
I do a 20-minute sauna session and bring only a notepad and a pen with me. Some of the best ideas I’ve had in recent memory occurred to me in the solitary, stifling environment of that sauna. As I sit there sweating profusely, I’ll think through what I wrote in the morning. As Stephen King put it, “boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam.”
After I take a shower (another great environment for idea generation), I head back to my laptop to edit.
Do you find that you write differently for your short-form work versus your longer form books?
I write my short-form work with an eye to including it in long-form work, so my approach is usually the same. But my short-form work is often less polished and more verbose.
Everyone says that the first step to being a good writer is to read good writers’ writing. What do you read? How much do you read? Who is your favorite author to emulate?
I’m influenced by whatever I happen to be reading at the time. I start the day by reading non-fiction (see above). I end the day by reading fiction. At night, I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s story to shut off my “work brain” and prevent my to-do list from inducing insomnia.
In your latest book, The Democratic Coup d’État, you write about the misunderstood relationship between democracy and a military coups. In your research did you come across any historical military or political figures that inform your writing process or techniques?
Many of the figures I cover in the book are inspirational in the sense that they do the unexpected. The term coup d’état–French for stroke of the state–brings to mind coups staged by power-hungry generals who overthrow the existing regime, not to democratize, but to concentrate power in their own hands as dictators. We assume all coups look the same, smell the same, and present the same threats to democracy.
In the book, I cover military leaders who buck conventional wisdom: Instead of destroying democracy, they promote it. Instead of retaining power for themselves, they topple a dictator and transition the country to democratic rule.
The historical events and figures in the book serve as a reminder to me to question the standard narratives about our world and engage with all ideas, no matter how controversial.
Do you struggle at all with that dreaded enemy of writing: writer’s block? Do you think such a thing exists?
I was hoping you wouldn’t ask. This question, more than any other, divides writers and produces howls of outrage on both sides. The truth, as in most matters, probably lies somewhere in between.
I do think we benefit from telling ourselves that there’s no such thing as writer’s block (even if it exists). Otherwise, it’s too convenient to cite writer’s block as an excuse, to talk about it as if it’s some unavoidable ailment (“I’ve had writer’s block for the past week. It’s terrible.”).
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield recounts the story of Henry Fonda’s struggle with resistance, which is the force behind writer’s block. Even when he was 75, Fonda, whose acting career spanned more than five decades, would throw up in his dressing room before every single performance.
What’s important is what he’d do next. He’d clean himself up, drink some water, march on stage, and start doing his job. Fonda was a professional. He experienced resistance like the rest of us, but he knew the secret to overcoming it: Just start.
Resistance, when ignored, doesn’t stay dormant. It starts doing push-ups. Writing becomes harder and harder to tackle each time I look at a blank document but choose to clean my sock drawer instead.
Starting is the hardest part. Isaac Newton’s first law of motion applies equally to the writing process: Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
Once you start writing, it’s easier to keep writing. Progress is the most effective motivator. Before you know it, the distance behind you is longer than the distance ahead of you.
You’ve been a proponent of being a contrarian—standing out from the crowd—for quite some time. What are some of the contrarian routines you utilize that helps your writing stand out? How would you advise young, inexperienced writers to march to the beat of their own drum when it comes to their writing habits?
There’s a scene I love in the movie Walk the Line, which is about the life of Johnny Cash. In the scene (based loosely on true events), Cash walks into the audition room at Sun Record Labels. At the time, he’s a nobody. He’s selling appliances door-to-door and playing gospel songs at night with two friends.
The audition doesn’t go as Cash planned. As Cash begins to sing a slow, dreary gospel song, the record label owner (Sam Phillips) restrains himself for all of thirty seconds before interrupting Cash. He says, “We’ve already heard that song. A hundred times. Just like that. Just like how you sang it.” Cash protests, “Well, you didn’t let us bring it home.”
Phillips then responds with a rant that ends up changing Cash’s life:
“Bring it home? Alright, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up.
You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it?
Or . . . would you sing somethin’ different? Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt.
Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.”
This rant jolts Cash out of his conformist attitude.
In that moment, he stops trying to be a gospel singer. He becomes Johnny Cash.
Our internal narrative tells us to play it safe and go with what’s worked in the past. I was at a bookstore last weekend and, as I was scanning the new non-fiction section (or as I call it, conducting market research), I counted four books whose titles began with the exact same phrase ( “The Rise and Fall of . . .”).
We’re in a race to the center, singing the same old gospel song. But as Cash quickly realized, there are too many aspiring gospel singers. You can’t get ahead if you’re simply following.
This is easier said than done. I still can’t help but emulate the writers that I admire. But even as we “steal like an artist,” to borrow the title of Austin Kleon’s terrific book, we have to make sure that our distinctive voice isn’t drowned out by the giants that came before us.
What are your favorite books on writing if you have any?
Two of my favorites have been mentioned here repeatedly (On Writing and War of Art).
So I’ll focus on three others. The first is Adam Grant’s Originals. Adam’s book isn’t specifically about writing, but there are lots of strategies in the book that apply to authors. He shows, for example, that originals generate more ideas because a greater volume of work creates more variation and a higher chance of originality. I took Adam’s advice to heart and keep an idea notebook in Evernote for future articles and books. Most of these ideas are useless, but I find that I need to get the shitty ideas out of my head for the gems to emerge.
The second is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. It’s because of the strategies outlined in Newport’s book that I was able to write The Democratic Coup d’État in 8 months. After reading it, I became relentless about blocking all distractions and carving out chunks of time for deep work.
Finally, I love Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats, a collection of Neil’s essays on “making good art,” as he called it in a commencement speech. The book is the closest thing to opening up Neil’s brilliant mind and seeing what’s inside.