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 get up at 4:00 AM and write from 4:00 to 8:00 AM every morning.
Have you been doing that for a long time? Is the rationale that you’d like to get the worst part of the day out of the way first?
Yeah, between 3:30 and 4:00 AM. I’ve been doing for over 20 years. There are a whole bunch of reasons. I don’t just open my eyes at 4:00 AM, I try to go from bed to desk before my brain even kicks out of its Alpha wave state. I don’t check any emails. I turn everything off at the end of the day including unplugging my phones and all that stuff so that the next morning there’s nobody jumping into my inbox or assaulting me emotionally with something, you know what I mean? So I really protect that early morning time.
But the better answer to your question is that I came up as a journalist on the West coast. I was poor and young and I wanted to write books, not just magazine articles. My editors in New York were young and ambitious, too, and even though they were on the East Coast they’d get to their desks at 8:30 AM and start calling me, which meant it was 5:30 AM my time. If they had an assignment for me, I said yes because I said yes to everything because I needed the work. If I had any prayer of writing books I had to do it before they hijacked my day.
It absolutely works for me. It also allows me to, if I really need it, get three writing sessions out of my day. I can write for 4:00 to 8:00 AM and I can do a smaller session in the afternoon. Then if I have to, like if a deadline is approaching, I can do an early evening session as well. So I can sometimes get three productive sessions in one day. Other times you’re just stuck at your desk putting words together the entire day, but that’s not the best idea for me. I don’t write my best when I’m under that kind of pressure. I need breaks between it.
What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?
I use a Mac with Word for Mac. I can’t work with anything else. The intuition built into the Apple lineage is my intuition. Whoever developed that way back when for Mac, it was built for people as computer dumb as me.
And I never write on a laptop if I can avoid it. I like a desktop. I need as big a screen as possible. As a matter of fact—it’s funny—unless I’m writing fiction I cannot write when I’m on the road. If I can get three full pages on the screen that’s usually my goal. I want my book and two reference documents.
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else on in the background?
It depends on the time of day and what I’m trying to do, but 70 percent of the time I will listen to music with headphones so it’s right up in my ear. I will usually make one or two playlists for a book and I will listen to the same playlist over and over and over again.
Is there a rhyme or reason to that or is it just how you’ve always done it?
It has to do with something called state dependent learning. Remember when you were in high school and somebody said, “Well if you studied for the test in purple sweats you should take the test in purple sweats?” That works on a lot of levels but it works really well with music. So if I find a playlist that I kicked into a flow state with really early on in my process and was very successful I will keep using it because it will keep driving that flow. It’s like a faster shortcut into that state of consciousness. I’ve already groomed part of the pathways to my brain, basically.
So much of it is about building a flow-based schedule. I’ve got decades of hard thinking and research into creativity and innovation in the brain and states of consciousness and flow.
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits? Or is it straight from bed to desk?
Literally straight from bed to desk. I’d like to start with my eyes opening to blank document in front of me. Right now I’m writing an array of 800 words a day. So I start this morning by reading what I wrote yesterday. I always re-edit the stuff to establish rhythms and then I face the blank page.
So you try to produce about 800 words each day?
It depends on where I am. When I’m first starting a new book I write about 500 words a day. That will be one session. Then I’ll raise that to 750. Recently I was actually doing anywhere between 800-1000, which is massive for me. That’s a really big day, but I was trying to write a novel in three months and I hadn’t written a novel in 19 years.
I look at writers like Stephen King and Michael Connelly and whoever and I’m doing more difficult things with language than they are, but they can put out a book or two a year writing novels. You obviously cannot do that at all with nonfiction, not if you’re doing the level of research that I’m doing, and I’m on the fast side for nonfiction. I was wanted a break [from nonfiction] and wondered if I could write a novel in three months.
So if you’re daily rhythm is about 800 words, how much of that sees the light of day? Are you leaving a lot on the cutting room floor?
It’s very hard to measure though because I am a crazy editor. I will re-edit the same passage 25 times and think nothing of it. On average if I write a 75,000 word book I have 75,000 words of outtakes, so I probably end up writing three books worth of words for each actual book that I produce. One book of outtakes where I got it to at least chapter length and then decided it sucked.
When you’re staring at the screen at 4:00 AM, do you just start clicking away? What’s going through your head at that initial moment? Is it like, you know for some authors it’s complete self-loathing and hatred.
In college, a professor of mine at the San Francisco Art Institute walked in on the first day of class and announced that, statistically speaking, 0.5% of us would be doing something in a creative field. Not even in our chosen field, any creative field. There were maybe 50 students in the class, so according to the math only half a person would end up doing something creative. I wanted to be that guy. I remember the professor saying, “The secret is that when you wake up in the morning you can’t to anything else.”
My first thought was that I could tend bar, build furniture, there is stuff I can do. What I realized years later was that he meant when it’s 4:00 AM I want to do nothing but write. Even if the day before was a terrible writing day, I am so fired up to go at it again. I can be an absolutely miserable writer sometimes, but I wake up every day so fired up to do this.
To me, to take it one step further, what I’m looking for when I start turning my thoughts in sentences is the thing you can’t really teach: rhythm in language. When I’m editing what I’m usually doing is looking at the rhythm in the sentences in a sense.
There are a lot of reasons for doing that. Rhythm is about really secret, subtle patterns and the brain loves those, so when you discover one you get a little squirt of the focusing chemical dopamine, which focuses attention further when writing and helps drive you into flow.
I would do that years ago as a journalist—in order to solve my writing problems when I was stuck I would re-read my favorite journalists over and over and try to adopt their rhythms into my language. So it’s an old habit but I’ve learned that, for me, getting a word here and a word there and finding that rhythm is going to kick me deeper into flow which is where I need to be by the time I get to the blank page portion of the day.
Speaking of which—journalists whose voices and styles you tried to emulate or who you admired—who were those folks? What did that process look like?
I started out as a poet, believe it or not. My undergraduate degree was poetry and I switched to fiction writing my senior year of college. So the first writer I ever wanted to be was E.E. Cummings. Then I wanted to be Thomas Penson De Quincey for a lot of years. If you read my first novel, something I was clearly wrestling with was trying to do my own version of Penson. Don DeLillo really influenced me as well.
As a journalist I was really shaped by a handful of other writers: Joan Didion, David Quammen, John McPhee. David Quammen and John McPhee were guys who were trying to do new journalism with science so I was trying to do the same thing. John had solved it a little bit for geology—he had figured out kind of an action packed travel log that worked for that field. Then David took that from John and brought it into ecology and environmental science. I wanted to try to take it into psychology, consciousness, philosophy and neuroscience.
I like reading about ideas. What I care about when I write is: never boring, never confusing and never arrogant. Those are really important to me. I want my nonfiction books to read like William Gibson novels. They’re subtle, they’ve got really big ideas, they’ve got style baked in but it never overwhelms you. They talk about really hard stuff but drives you through the plot—drives you, drives you, drives you. I want to do that with my nonfiction. I wanted to write new science journalism that drove people through a story like a novel if that makes any sense.
I also had a really tough time writing emotion, which is why I had a hard time as a novelist and it was easier for me to switch and write nonfiction. Joan Didion taught me how to write emotion. She wrote about emotion in a way that…she writes the absolute blunt truth—she tells you she’s having a nervous breakdown and she’s losing her mind, but she does it very plainly, just like that. There’s no fanfare.
When I wrote West of Jesus I had spent three years in bed with Lyme disease and I needed to tell that story to open the book, but I thought, “I spent three years in bed with Lyme but who cares? Compared to getting cancer or losing a limb, so what?” I needed to tell that story as subtly and calmly and humorously as possible. It ended up being very little in the book, maybe five pages total all added together.
When I teach other writers how to write…this is something that I dreamed up for a class and I still run it once every 5 to 10 years: I spend a month where the first thing I do in the morning is walk over to my bookshelf, close my eyes, grab a book, open it up, open my eyes and look at a sentence. I have to write a page off of that sentence in the same style. I’ll do 30 days of that in a row. Usually what you end up with at the end of 30 days is two different story opening that you like. I often will write them into short stories, but they never see the light of day.
I do that sometimes to get my own voice out of my head and to learn somebody else’s.
Do you struggle at all with that dreaded enemy of writing: writer’s block?
I’ve had writer’s block once when I was writing A Small Furry Prayer. I was stuck for almost two and a half months or maybe even three. That was really terrible. On Stealing Fire I often had writer’s block in spurts because it was collaborative and because we had very different ideas on what the book should be. That may have been more of a process problem than a writer’s block.
A lot of the flow stuff is about how you break out of those kinds of blocks and what it takes so there’s lot of kung fu I have. Let me give you an example: The more anxiety you feel, the more norepinephrine you produce. The more norepinephrine you produce the tighter the clusters of neurons that communicate are. So for really far flung, disparate ideas you need far flung communication between areas of the brain. The more gripped you get, the more stuck you are, the more that shuts down. If you look at somebody who is super anxious, super gripped by writer’s block, it’s not going to look that much different that someone with OCD if you ran an fMRI on their brains. It’s a tight loop. It’s why you can’t bust out. One of the things that happens when you get gripped by writer’s block is that it is hard to remember what to do. The creative part of your brain that would normally think around the problem is shut down.
I have a list on my computer of what to do when shit goes wrong. It’s all the reminders I need. It tells me things like when my writing is arrogant, for example. When I catch myself trying to use dazzling, fancy language it actually means I haven’t done enough research and I’m trying to cover up…Usually I want to get writing because I’m nervous about a deadline but I haven’t done enough research yet to actually start writing, so I cover up for my lack of knowledge with fancy language.
Another reminder to myself is to be wary of confusing writing. When my writing is confusing, that is because I don’t know where my starts and endings are. Where does it start? Where does it end? So I have that reminder written down.
So you get writer’s block for many reasons. I have lists of those reasons and what the solutions are because when you’re gripped your brain is not going to be able to find the solutions. It’s literally biophysically impossible.
Do those strategies work? If this, then that—that works?
Yes and no. What you need for flow is fast feedback so I learned a long time ago that I need to employ a private editor, that I can’t trust…magazine and book editors are too busy. They don’t actually edit to the level that I want. So with everything that I write, not only do I go over it 25 times, I read it aloud with an editor and he tells me if it’s arrogant or confusing as well. So I get outside feedback a couple times a week. We’ll read through everything I’ve written up to that point.
Thinking about your career arc—going from somebody who had a byline but probably not a brand to somebody who has an audience of his own and gets attention for the things he writes—has it influenced your writing? How so? Do you think of the audience and the stakes or do you just try to put as much of that stuff to bed as possible?
Years ago, when I was on staff at GQ, I had a really dear friend who was a filmmaker. He was working on a documentary and came to me at one point and said, “I don’t know how you do it.” I didn’t know what he was talking about.”I don’t know how you write something and a million people read it. And since you write about fairly unusual subjects it’s pretty much the only opinion they’re ever going to get on that subject. How do you deal with that?”
I just started laughing. I explained to him that I was a freelance writer. My job was to make my editor happy enough that they would approve five more stories so that I could feed myself. The luxury of thinking what a reader might actually think of my stuff was so far from my mind. Half the time I wouldn’t even know the articles had been published. I care about the next creative project.
That said, one of the reasons I partnered with Peter Diamandis was because I had written three novels in three different genres. What I learned is that I can write a cult classic like nobody’s business. In a weird way, each one of my books is much more of a cult classic than an actual bestseller. So Peter and I partnered because I finally had gotten comfortable with the idea that people seemed to like my writing, but I just had no clue where the mainstream is, so I need somebody to show me. That’s actually on that list of things to do when shit goes wrong: Find the mainstream, which is just to say that I need to be reminded sometimes where other people are. I get so curious that I could go any direction.
Which of your books would you say was your favorite to write?
West of Jesus was without a doubt number one. Then either Abundance or Rise of Superman number two. West of Jesus was a blast until the very end when I had to write 25,000 words of hard science and neuroscience because I’d only ever written maybe 5,000 words on any given topic before. That was hard. But other than that it was an absolute blast.
Do you have any favorite books about writing and the creative process?
I don’t. There are bits and pieces of advice kind of tucked into this and that that I find really interesting. Like I stalk Aaron Sorkin around the web trying to figure out how he does dialog, for example.
In college I was lucky enough to study under John Barth, the godfather of American metafiction. We were discussing my favorite book, Gravity’s Rainbow, and he reminded me that even though the whole book is pyrotechnics everywhere, the plot, the moral soul of the book, is a 50 page short story told in the plainest english you could ever imagine. He told me I needed to have as many arrows in my quiver as possible. He meant learn to write in as many styles as possible, learn how to write marketing copy, ad copy, jokes, speeches, fiction, nonfiction, everything possible.
In my 30s I spent years doing stupid celebrity articles not because I gave a shit about Hollywood celebrities, but because I could do a high volume of interviews. I wanted to get much better at writing character, dialog, all that stuff. How do you build a scene out of somebody eating a biscuit at a restaurant? You have to do all of that with celebrity interviews. I did hundreds of laps on those. The money was okay, but mostly I did it because I could get so many cycles in.
I never assumed I was more talented than anybody else. I just tried to outwork them. My point being is that there are few people that I can’t at least imitate by now, but Aaron Sorkin is one of those dudes.
Many professional writers adhere to the advice that you should stop at high point in your writing. What are your thoughts on that?
Yes, I heard that advice from Gabriel Garcia Marquez in an interview with Playboy: Quit when you’re most excited. And I do most of the time. There’s good neurobiology underneath why that makes sense, actually. Now to be clear, I won’t quit before my deadline, you know what I mean? If I’m going to write 800 words and I get to 650 and it’s really exciting I’m not going to stop at 650.
The most important thing is to know where you’re going to start the next morning. That’s what quitting when you’re excited is all about, giving yourself something to look forward to. I will write down questions to myself and maybe some philosophy and I try to be as specific as possible with the prompts but I don’t know how it’s going to come out yet. I always try to prime my writing day the day before because I want the least amount of anxiety and the most enthusiasm when I start.
I also try to feed my pattern recognition system every day. We all have a pattern recognition system. It’s built in, but it needs raw material. Most people just read their subject matter or stuff they are really interested in but that doesn’t create enough space for pattern recognition, so I try to read a minimum of 25 pages outside of my discipline every day to create conditions for pattern recognition.
If you were thinking back to your younger literary self and give some advice, what would that be?
I’d tell that person, “Don’t be so goddamn terrified.” I’d want to tell myself to calm down. I’d also want to tell myself to keep…like, my whole career I saw all these other writers get scared by the money shit and take jobs in writing but not as writers. They’d become editors and pretty soon they weren’t writing at all. As I started to get bigger and people started trying to hire me for this or that I always defended my freedom and defended my time to write my books because ultimately writers’ careers get derailed a lot and the first derailment is always the money thing. It’s so hard to make a living and then after you figure out how to make a living you get a little famous for having some kind of voice. That’s when you get to the next level but then they couldn’t care less about your voice—Wired doesn’t want me to write great Steven Kotler articles they want me to write great Wired articles by Steven Kotler. You have to fit yourself into other people’s boxes for about 10 years and it doesn’t seem very fair because you spent the first ten years just trying to figure out the money thing. Then, and only then, maybe you get to do what you want to do.
The thing I would actually probably tell that person is when you’re really panic-y and really scared you’re useless. Go surfing, go skiing, shut down and come back and face the problem. You’re no use to yourself terrified.