This week I’m answering the question:
Isn’t it hard to come up with new topics to write about week after week?
This is the bête noir of everyone who writes a weekly column. You finish writing about one topic and then the panic sets in. You are certain — as certain as you’ve ever been of anything in your life — that you will never, ever, think of anything else to write about. I’ve avoided this catastrophe (so far) for 201 weeks, but partly by cheating. If I have, say, 3,000 words to say about some subject or other, I’ll make three posts out of it. I.e., I’ve written 201 posts but I haven’t written about 201 topics.
Still, I’ve written about a lot of topics. How do I come up with these ideas? Fortunately, the world is a wondrously complex and interesting place and something is happening somewhere every minute and a half that could potentially be blogged about. But before I can blog about it, I have to know about it, which means that I have to read a lot.
Like everybody else, I read massive amounts of stuff for my day job in the investment world, just to stay abreast of developments. And since this is partly an investment blog, I get ideas from that material — it’s a twofer.
I read four newspapers every day: my local paper (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. I read the papers in hard copy when I’m in Pittsburgh, on my iPhone apps otherwise. I also read, every day, the online versions of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Stratfor and The Economist.
I’m one of those people who can’t just read one book at a time. A few years ago there were 16 books piled up on my night table and I was diligently reading all of them. In the middle of the night the pile fell off the table, and we thought a nuclear bomb had landed on our bedroom.
This morning there were only eight books on my night stand, ranging from the profound to the ridiculous: The Visual Arts: A History and the first volume of Churchill’s autobiography, but also a Jack Reacher novel and a “dirty book” written in 1958 by “Sheldon Lord,” aka Lawrence Block.
One reason for the current paucity of night table books is the rise of electronic books. My iPhone currently has 89 audio books on it, plus 18 eBooks and a handful of podcasts. For some reason, possibly because I listen to them when I’m driving or exercising and read them on business trips, the electronic books trend heavily toward the “ridiculous” end of the spectrum.
One very big problem with all this reading is that I’m a slow reader. Maybe because I’m a writer — and a poet — I love the cadence of sentences, the timbre of words. A well-wrought sentence or paragraph has, for me, a sensuousness not unlike that of a desirable woman. By the same token, a poorly structured sentence, or an ungrammatical or syntactically awkward one, grates on my ears and stops me cold. Especially when the sentence is one of my own.
And there is one other problem worth mentioning: not only does something interesting have to happen, and not only do I need to find out about it, but I actually have to know enough about it to write something sensible without doing a lot of research (or, preferably, none). I don’t mean to say that I don’t do any research at all for the blog, but I have so little time to do it that any post that requires research isn’t likely to see the light of day for many weeks.
What I mainly do isn’t research, but fact-checking. A few weeks ago I was writing a blog post (not yet published) that mentioned a Harvard professor. I’d met the professor briefly years ago, had read her work and could picture her in my mind. But when I wrote about her and fact-checked the piece, I realized I was visualizing the wrong person. Amazing how the memory plays tricks.
One of the under-appreciated virtues of a lifetime of vast, if unfocused, reading is that you can occasionally make connections among ideas that others wouldn’t notice — not because they are dumber or less creative than you, but because they simply haven’t read as widely. If people who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it, what happens to people who don’t study ideas?
In short, the bottom line about coming up with new topics to write about every week is that you have to spend essentially every waking hour reading. Fortunately, there are very few things I’d rather do.