The first time I learned what it means to be really good at something was in high school, on a golf course, with my hands cracked raw in the cold. I was on the 17th hole at Cape Arundel, a short, tricky course on the coast of Maine where the Bushes played in the summer. But as I stood there contemplating my tee shot in a hard wind off the Atlantic, all the glorious rounds I’d played on long August days felt very far away; I was who-knows-how-many strokes over par, my swing disintegrating in the elements.
Not everyone’s game fell apart that day. When I finished my round I was surprised to learn that several of the state’s best players had managed to turn in good scores. The pudgy, towheaded Ben Daughan had been atop the leaderboard at junior golf events all summer and he was there again that day, just a few shots over par even in weather better suited to a snowball fight. Upon seeing his score, I remember thinking that real ability thrives regardless of conditions.
I had that same thought in mind when, four years ago, I decided to make a career as a writer. My first assignment was a book review for The New York Observer — Jon Meacham’s American Lion. I spent six anguished days working virtually nonstop to squeeze out barely 900 words. Most of that time I spent in a high pulse-rate pace around my apartment, waiting for conditions to clear just enough to let out a sentence. I realized that my writing at age 28 was a lot like my golf game as a teenager: a single gust of wind and it went to Hell.
Around that same time I met Seth Mnookin, then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair with a best-selling book to his name. I emailed him, cold, looking for advice about starting a freelance career. He replied with a friendly admonition (Journalism is dying! Run away!) and a few weeks after we first talked, asked me if I wanted to help him write his next book, the contract for which had just been finalized with Simon & Schuster.
Over the next 20 months, I spent more time talking with Seth than I did with my wife. His book was about the spurious but dogged idea that vaccines cause autism. He lived in New York, I lived in Philadelphia, and during our first year together I transcribed interviews, summarized journal articles, and tracked down contact information while he flew around the country to autism conferences, tried to wrangle a conversation with actress-turned-anti-vaccine-crusader Jenny McCarthy, and put together a rough outline for the book.
I kept waiting for the day when Seth would start to actually write the book. It came, finally, in October, five months before the manuscript was due. I’d always imagined writing a book as a meditation, but what followed was more of an ecstatic experience.
Seth kept long hours at his rented desk in a freelancers’ office in Manhattan. Often he’d send me a rough draft of a chapter in the early evening and tell me he was going out for air and some Chinese food. I’d work on the trouble spots he’d called to my attention — usually transition sentences, or synonyms for words like “increasingly” that we’d already used a dozen times, or working on the order of a few knotty paragraphs. I’d send the text back to him before I went to bed and wince at the thought of the long night that awaited him. But when I woke up the next morning and checked on the chapter, I’d always find that Seth had managed to knock things straight. He did this day after day, for months on end, with deadlines close, his professional reputation on the line, his first child born in the middle of it all.
And from watching this I learned that a real writer shouldn’t need a cup of tea at his side or a cabin with a view of the ocean or things just so in his own mind in order to get his work done.
My work with Seth on The Panic Virus, as it came to be called, ended in the middle of 2010 and I went on trying to make it as a writer. Most of my assignments were short pieces for college alumni magazines or book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor. Over time I found that my palms weren’t sweating as much when I sat down at my computer, and that I’d learned to do just enough of the writing process automatically to give me room to think as I wrote.
Around that same time I remember watching tennis’s U.S. Open. It was a windy day in Flushing and all the players were complaining about how it had been impossible to serve given the conditions. Then Roger Federer entered Arthur Ashe Stadium and aced out his opponent. Afterwards he was asked how he’d been able to serve so well in such bad weather. I remember Federer looking amused, like the question made no sense. “I’ve practiced my serve a whole lot my whole career,” he replied. “If I can’t serve in the wind I’ve got a problem. You can wake me up at two or four in the morning I can still hit serves.”
I’ve tried writing in the middle of the night and the results usually aren’t good. But four years in as a writer, I’m less sensitive to my surroundings than I used to be. Just before Christmas, I was hired by The Boston Globe to write the paper’s “Brainiac” ideas blog. I’m writing 10 pieces a week, often about unfamiliar topics; four years ago I would have had a heart attack contemplating this kind of job, but now I feel practiced enough to do it well. I still can’t write like Seth, or like Federer can serve, or that kid Ben could golf, but I find that at least I can apply consistently the talent I have.
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