The 85-Percent Rule

There's a famous saying, the perfect is the enemy of the done.

As a perfectionist, I know this to be true. The more I try to accomplish something and make it perfect, the less I get done. Which is why, years ago when I was an up-and-coming nonfiction writer, I adopted something that I call "The 85% Rule." When writing an early draft, I only give it 85% of my best. I never give it my all. Certainly, I don't give it the proverbial 110% that your high school track coach told you to give.

Nope. For me, giving 100% is a dead-end. It leads to procrastination and worse, chronic, obsessive rewriting. Trying to write from this place of dictatorial control never works for me.

And the result is never pretty. Forced writing is less creative, less interesting.  I get the opposite result when I focus on giving less of myself to my writing. When I aim for eighty-five percent effort, I take more risks. Risk leads to bolder, more interesting writing.

So I invite you to stop trying to be the next Nobel laureate. Instead, aim to be a messy human being. I venture to guess that you will say more and write more powerfully. You will end up with writing that rich with ideas and voice. Later, you can shape your messy draft into polished writing that sings like a bird in paradise.  

 

Biography

Brad Wetzler: Writer, Speaker, Writing Coach

Brad Wetzler: Writer, Speaker, Writing Coach

I began my career as an editor at Outside, where I conceived, developed and edited hundreds of stories by some of America’s finest journalists. I left the editing staff at Outside in 1997, and spent more than a decade working as a freelance journalist.

I traveled across America and around the world. I interviewed and wrote longform stories about spiritual gurus in India and Messiahs in Jerusalem. I rode the campaign bus with presidential candidates and broke bread with cult leaders. I played polo with tech billionaires in India and pounded vodka shots with Russian cosmonauts. I hiked in Jesus’ footsteps in Galilee and road-tripped across Palestine. I interviewed celebrities, politicians, professional athletes, explorers, spiritual gurus, and anarchists. 

My book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton. My work has been published in The New York Times MagazineGQWiredNational Geographic AdventureMen's JournalTravel + LeisureBest American Travel Writing, among others.

I had a career that most writers dream about, but it wasn’t until my forties that I discovered an additional calling: coaching writers and helping people to become authors. During a prolonged walkabout in  the Middle East, I saw the many ways that travel can change and heal us. I realized that we are our best selves when we pursue our passion and also serve others. I discovered my passion for helping people tell their stories, and I started my work as a writing teacher and coach. Today, I write, edit, and coach up-and-coming writers.  

You can read all about my personal journey my upcoming book, The Big Awake.

I enjoy coaching writers. I help them become better, more powerful writers and to write the books that are inside them. With more than two decades of experience as a professional writer, editor, teacher, and coach, I am steeped in real-world writing and publishing experience.

 

The Yoga of Writing

Yoga of Writing: Brad Wetzler

Yoga of Writing: Brad Wetzler

Writing is more like yoga than you might think. 

Both disciplines require learning specific rules and vocabularies. Yoga has its 8 Limbs, one of which is asana, or the physical poses that most Westerners consider to be yoga. Each asana asks the yogi to hold the body in a specific and precise way. By focusing on the mechanics of the pose and sitting in the uncomfortableness, we see ourselves in a mirror. We learn things about ourselves.

Writing--crafting sentences out of symbols composed of curved and straight lines--is similar. When we write, we see ourselves in a mirror and learn things about ourselves. Things that we couldn't see before we did the writing.

Both disciplines can lead to waking up from the trance that afflicts us all when we get consumed by the demands of work, home, and society. When we do yoga or write, we experience ourselves in deeper and more subtle way. This isn't spiritual mumbo jumbo. We actually become more human. 

Both disciplines can be thought of as spiritual practices.

What is a practice? A practice is something one does repeatedly. Over time, we get better at it. With sustained practice, we learn new subtleties about the practice and ourselves. We go deeper. 

There is another meaning of the word “practice.” 

In religious and spiritual realms, a practice is something that we do without expectations of an outcome. You do it. Period. And you do it regularly because it serves you. Maybe it serves God, if you believe in the divine. But practice is unusual in another way. Though many spiritual practices, including meditation and prayer, are deeply private, a practice actually benefits others. A solid practice shows us that we don't have to be driven by impulse and conditioning. We don't have to act the way we have always have. A practice teaches us that we have choices in how we show up in the world. And so, a practice benefits the community. It  benefits the entire world.

Have you thought of your writing in this way? What if treating your writing as a practice that allows you to say what you most need and desire to say? What if you acknowledged that what you most desire to say WILL benefit others?  What if you saw your writing as service to others?

Try this on. 

How My Coaching Works and Rates

My writing coach program is ideal for writers of memoir, general nonfiction, and narrative nonfiction.  I also have a blog coaching program for writers who want to launch or improve their author websites and blogs. The blog coaching program is perfect for established authors or writers who are getting ready to publish and want to build a platform.

How It Works

I structure my coaching around these four phases. 

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More About My Coaching Services

Every person who has achieved success has done so by enlisting the help of others.

Some of us studied writing at university and were guided by knowledgeable, professional instructors. Others are self-taught, and they too relied on help from the pros. They studied works by successful authors and absorbed books and other resources on the craft of writing.

We all need a little help crossing the finish line. Hiring a writing coach may be a smart option.

What a Writing Coach Does

A writing coach should be able to relate to your struggles while offering solutions to help you overcome

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Brad Wetzler Coaching: Who am I? What do I believe? How can I serve you?

Philosophy:

Telling stories–and helping people tell stories–is my skill and passion. The power of story–the ways in which story can make, define, sink, or free us–is a thread that runs through all my writing and teaching. I believe that telling our stories helps us live with more compassion, courage, impact, connectedness, and love. 

My philosophy derives from extensive experience as a journalist, editor, and teacher. I spent more than a decade as a working magazine journalist. I traveled the world on assignment. The experiences I had while reporting stories in Greenland, Palestine, Indonesia, the Amazon, and beyond was a gift. It taught me that stories are everywhere and that everybody has a story that is worth telling–and worth listening to. 

I've also worked as a professional editor. In this role, I've mastered the art and craft of storytelling, and I've learned this key lesson: stories are more powerful when told well.

Now, I bring the lessons that I learned on the road and behind the desk to bear as a teacher of writing and writing coach. I help people mine their inner stories and get them down on the page. I help them hone their stories into powerful masterpieces.

Experience:

I am a published author and storyteller. My stories have been published in The New York Times Magazine and Book ReviewNewsweekGQWiredTravel + LeisureNational Geographic Adventure, the Best American Travel Writing series, Men's JournalGeorge, and Outside, where I was a senior editor.

My book, Real Mosquitoes Don't Eat Meat (W.W. Norton's Countryman Press), is a collection of writings from my days as Outside magazine's "Wild File" columnist.

I was a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate and a contributing editor at Outside and George magazines.

I have a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. I have taught writing at The College of Santa FeColorado Writing School, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, The Book Project, among other venues. I have spoken as a guest lecturer at the University of ColoradoUniversity of New MexicoNew Mexico State University, and other schools and universities. I am currently writing a travel memoir about the Middle East.

Services:

I am an editor, book coach, and publishing consultant. I offer skilled, thorough developmental editing services and life-changing coaching in all writing and publishing matters. I can help you write your book or guide you through the process of writing a book proposal. I coach aspiring writers working in all genres and guide my clients in all aspects of the writing process. I help people become published authors. I have deep experience and a proven track record. I have taught thousands of people to become better storytellers and to realize their dreams of becoming authors.

New York Times Magazine Profile: Explorer Gene Savoy's Final Quest

It is a steamy August afternoon off the coast of Hawaii, and the Feathered Serpent III-Ophir, Gene Savoy's 73-foot-long catamaran, is carving gracefully through cerulean waters. Squinting into the equatorial sun, the 72-year-old Savoy slicks back his shoulder-length brown hair with a comb, replaces his skipper's cap and, gripping the ship's wheel, barks orders into the ocean spray. His crew -- six shirtless middle-aged men with little sailing experience and badly sunburned shoulders and backs -- respond by hustling around the mahogany deck, coiling ropes and tying knots. In the cramped, unlighted galley below, a tattooed sailor with Popeye biceps stacks cans of pinto beans and Meister Brau beer.

The Feathered Serpent looks as if it belongs in a museum, even though it's only 8 months old.

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The New York Times Travel Essay: Canyoneering in Utah

JOURNEYS; Where Waterfalls Are the Way Out

By BRAD WETZLERMAY 21, 2004

SITUATED at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, a vast rock tabletop that encompasses parts of southern Utah, northern Arizona, southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico, Zion National Park is a geological wonderland hundreds of millions of years in the making. The rock here was tortured by nature, having at various times been uplifted, tilted and eroded. As a result, the land looks like a giant staircase, with each step several thousand feet higher than the next. And it is riddled with deep, narrow canyons -- ideal territory for the sport of canyoneering.

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Outside Magazine Essay: Looking Back on Into Thin Air

Sending Jon Krakauer to Everest was my idea. After the news broke, I spent the better part of a day wondering if I'd put him in a frozen grave.

IT WAS THE WORST STORY IDEA idea an editor could come up with, let alone assign to a real human being. That's how I felt on Saturday, May 11, 1996, the day I heard Jon Krakauer had disappeared while reporting for Outside on the growing phenomenon of commercially guided trips up Mount Everest a story I'd conceived and helped make happen by dealing with an endless stream of logistical headaches. None of that mattered when I heard Krakauer was missing in a deadly high-altitude blizzard. Had I sent him to his death?

Just 24 hours earlier, of course, I'd considered myself a genius. On the morning of May 10, Mark Bryant, Outside's editor, made an announcement at the daily editorial meeting in our Santa Fe office. "I have news from Jon Krakauer's wife," he quietly told some two dozen staffers. "Early in the afternoon, Nepal time, Jon made it to the summit of Everest."

A cheer went up; there were high-fives. I pictured Everest, a three-sided granite pyramid jutting into the jet stream, ice crystals pluming off its top. Krakauer was up there in a snowsuit and oxygen mask, taking pictures and notes as he gazed out over the sprawling Tibetan Plateau and, in the opposite direction, the deep glacial basin known as the Western Cwm.

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New York Times Travel Essay: Hiking the Biblical Backcountry

This travel essay first appeared in The New York Times.
–Brad Wetzler 

AROUND the corner from Nazareth’s Old City market, in the shadow of 200-year-old Ottoman mansions, there’s a cobblestone street so narrow you can almost touch the houses on either side. An arrow pointing up some stairs is painted on one rough wall, along with the words “Jesus Trail.” It’s the de facto trailhead for a 40-mile hike through the Galilee region of Israel in the footsteps, more or less, of the man who made Galilee famous.

The Jesus Trail is the brainchild of two hiking enthusiasts, Maoz Inon, a 37-year-old Israeli who owns the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, and David Landis, 30, a guidebook writer from Pennsylvania. The pair met in 2005 while hiking in Israel, and came up with the idea of creating a path linking key historical sites related to the life of Jesus. Some of those sights — including the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount — were already popular on commercial bus tours. But others, like the Roman road where the risen Christ is believed to have blinded Paul (an act that led to Paul’s conversion to Christianity), were not accessible from nearby highways.

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Outside Magazine Travel Essay: Adventure in Copper Canyon

Drop-Dead Gorges

Pancho Villa lives! Viva high adventure down in Mexico's Copper Canyon.

"I saw the old jalopy," said a bony stranger sitting across the table from me in a coffee shop in our ancient Southwestern city. He was sporting an armadillo-shaped bolo tie and a cowboy hat, and he squinted like a B-movie gunslinger about to draw his Colt .45. "I placed my fingers in the bullet holes." 

Between tugs on a grande latte, the old compadre described a black 1922 Dodge convertible with four on the floor and wood spokes. The owner had been none other than Francisco "Pancho" Villa, the Mexican outlaw-turned-revolutionary who championed the poor by helping to topple the brutal despot Porfirio Díaz in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and evaded U.S. troops after a murderous cross-border foray. In fact, he allowed, this was the very set of wheels Villa had been driving when he was assassinated in 1923 by seven mystery gunmen. According to the coffee-shop cowboy, who'd set eyes on the vehicle in the late 1970s, the old beater was sitting up on blocks in the backyard of a house that belonged to Villa's widow on the outskirts of the city of Chihuahua, Mexico. 
I've always been intrigued by this mythical, sombreroed hero. And northern Mexico, the desolate land where Villa lived, has been the scene of several harebrained "expeditions of discovery" of mine over the last ten years. Now Pancho's car was all

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The New York Times Travel Essay: The Lowriders of Española

DRIVING; Taking It Low and Slow On Española's Streets

By BRAD WETZLER

SOME people change the radio station when they hear the first grinding chords of ''Slow Ride'' by Foghat. Not Arthur Medina, a 40-year-old native of Chimayo, N.M., a tiny burg about eight miles east of Española. He cranks it up.

Mr. Medina, who is known to his friends and admirers simply as Lowlow, is one of the Española area's celebrated lowriders, so called because they drive cars with suspensions altered so that the undersides practically hug the pavement. (The cars themselves are also called lowriders.) Classic rock -- he likes all of it, no matter who's playing -- helps set the mood when he's out for a cruise on renowned Riverside Drive in Española. He has a half-dozen lowriders, but this time he's driving his most beloved, a 1976 Cadillac that he calls his Holy Week car, red and blue and adorned with religious paintings, including a depiction of the Last Supper on the trunk.

He adjusts the seat so far back that he's practically in the back seat. His left arm rests casually out the open window. The right hand gently grips the tiny chrome chain-link steering wheel. His face is confident, peaceful, the face of someone in control. It's the look that a Nascar racer must have as he hits 212 miles an hour on a Daytona straightaway -- yet Lowlow's old-school analog speedometer shows he's going only 10 m.p.h.

Lowlow has been practicing this look for more than 25 years, and he's pretty good at it.

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Wired Magazine Feature Story: Boomgalore

This is a piece I wrote for Wired magazine about changes in India created by the tech boom.  
–Brad Wetzler

 

Boomgalore

India’s tech superpower is acting more like Silicon Valley every day.

By Brad Wetzler

It’s a steamy, dung-scented evening, I’m riding around Bangalore, India, in a beat-up blue van, but right now we’re not going anywhere: There’s a citywide power outage, and we’re stopped dead in the middle of a clogged intersection, wishing the traffic lights would blink back on. Behind the wheel is a hot-tempered Sikh named Balbir Singh. Fiftyish and bearded, with Coke-bottle glasses, he’s furiously tapping his horn to shoo away a skinny cow. The cow isn’t budging, but it doesn’t matter. The entire city has become one huge and hopelessly tangled traffic jam.

“What a drag,” says Singh, jerking the shifter into neutral and leaning back in his seat.

Like all major Indian cities, Bangalore — a metropolis of about 5 million people on southern India’s Deccan Plateau — is a sprawl of decaying single-story houses and shops, Soviet-style apartment buildings, crumbling colonial offices, and abominable shantytowns that extend miles into the countryside. The potholed roads look like they’ve been hit by an air strike. People are everywhere, lounging on their front stoops, buying goat carcasses, gliding through the crowded streets in colorful saris. Poverty is everywhere, too: Through the van’s window I see an orange-clad devotee of Shiva the Destroyer begging for change, two cripples on all fours, and a leper with half a leg and rotting hands.

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Via Magazine Travel Essay: The Lightning Field

"There's a telephone in the closet," says the mumbly, wind-chapped cowboy, kicking at a dried-up cholla cactus that's lying on the ground. "And you'll find dinner in the fridge. There's wood for the wood stove out back if you need it. I'll be back tomorrow morning at around 11 to pick you up."

That was it. Without a word about lightning—or what we should do if, God forbid, a stray, 10-million-volt bolt were to strike the house with us inside—Robert Weathers climbed into his four-wheel-drive SUV and tore off down the washboard of a dirt road, a mushroom cloud of dust in his wake. As the air cleared, it struck me that the six of us who'd ridden out to this desolate high-desert outpost with Weathers were now effectively stranded for the next 24 hours, till the cowboy returned, in the middle of nowhere.

But this "nowhere"—the arid ranch lands north of Quemado, New Mexico, about 120 miles southwest of Albuquerque—was indeed "somewhere," especially if you were familiar with post-modern art. Six of us had been dropped off here for a very specific reason: to experience the Lightning Field, a 1970s-era art project that's considered a seminal piece of minimalist art and which is a well-known travel destination for curious art (and lightning) lovers.

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Profile: Andrew Weil, American Healer

ANDREW WEIL HAS A SORE FOOT. A FEW DAYS AGO HE stepped on a cactus on his 120-acre ranch here, about forty-five minutes southeast of Tucson. Either that, or a spider bit him. He's not sure. At any rate, his foot has swelled up with infection. He's tried treating it the natural way, by soaking it in warm water, but it's only gotten worse. So he's been forced to start a cycle of antibiotics, those high-powered goon squads of conventional medicine. 

The situation is a neat summary of the concept that Weil calls integrative medicine, which involves elements of both Western medicine and natural cures. It's a philosophy that has made Weil a powerful force. His round, bald pate, squinty eyes and Santa Claus beard are familiar from his seemingly constant appearances on PBS and Larry King Live, where he's known for providing health advice to grateful callers. On the jackets of his bestselling books, Weil is frequently called the guru of alternative medicine, but he doesn't much care for that description. "It's the source of a lot of trouble," he says of "guru," because it conveys an imbalance of power between guru and disciple. "I prefer to think of myself as the godfather." Whether they view Weil as godfather or savior, millions of people have found Weil's gospel of integrative medicine terrifically inspiring. Weil's book sales--he's published nine (see sidebar)--are impressive: His last three titles, preceding a cookbook co-written with Rosie Daley, have sold five million copies in the United States alone. He's a linchpin of the alternative medicine movement, and if he wasn't the first to give voice to many of the ideas he stands for, he was certainly the founding father who became a star. "Lots of people were advocating herbs and natural healing throughout the '70s and '80s," says Barb Tischler, of Herbs, Etc., a store in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "But he's the one who got the message out to the public." 

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Newsweek Magazine Travel Essay: A Road Trip across Palestine

A cool August evening, the final weekend of Ramadan, and I was planted on a comfortable sofa on the rooftop patio of a three-story stone house in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Sawahre. The surrounding Judaean Mountains, known to Palestinians as Jabal al-Khalil, appeared as huge, dark, breaching whales against the stars, and, to the west, the sky was glowing yellow from the obscured lights of Jerusalem. There were others with me: the three grown children of the Halaseh family, with whom I was staying, seated in chairs. The two eldest, Rana and Reham, are beautiful, sassy, and highly educated (both hold Ph.D.s); Tamer, the “baby” brother at 36, doesn’t have a Ph.D., but what he lacks in official credentials is more than made up for by his intimate knowledge of just about every square inch of his troubled country. Satiated from iftar, we had formed a circle around a three-foot-tall hookah filled with smoldering apple shishaand were taking turns puffing on the snakelike pipe and drinking from a bottle of high-octane arak. Chocolate candies were passed around. It was peaceful here, and that wasn’t only because of the shared indulgences. I was experiencing a side of Palestine most outsiders don’t know exists, unless you spend time with a Palestinian family. Of course, in Palestine, peace isn’t a permanent fixture. Over the next three weeks, I would see for myself the tragedy that is Palestine, as well as its tremendous natural beauty.

 

 

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Via Magazine Travel Essay: Utah's Bonneville Flats

"It's all about using your head to try to squeeze another mile an hour or two out of your engine," explains Mary West, a 73-year-old great-grandmother from Utah, who also answers to the title Mom of the Bonneville Salt Flats. For years she's acted as spokesperson, cheerleader, mechanic's assistant, driver psychotherapist, and anything else necessary to pull off Speed Week, an event with nearly 400 cars and thousands of spectators.

Of course, she also knows a thing or two about racing. Recalling her first run here, she gushes about putting the pedal to the metal and holding tight to a vibrating steering wheel: "The adrenaline rush nearly knocks you out. After you've driven on the salt, all you can think about for days is the crunching of tires on the salt, acceleration that pins you against your seat, and the banging of the car's side panels. You never forget your first ride on the Flats."

While the Mom of the Salt Flats looms large in modern drag racing, the star of the show is the vast expanse of salt itself. Located in western Utah along I-80 near the Nevada border, it consists of sodium chloride—table salt—and gypsum. And has existed since Lake Bonneville dried up some 13,000 years ago.

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Adventure: The World of Goran Kropp

This is part of a magazine feature story about Swedish adventurer Goran Kropp. The piece first appeared in National Geographic Adventure. 

The World According to Kropp
By Brad Wetzler

He cycled 7,000 miles [11,265 kilometers] to Everest, summitted, then biked home. Now, once he knocks off the North Pole, he plans to sail from Sweden to Antarctica, drag a sled to the South Pole, then turn around and retrace his route. Meet Göran Kropp, a true lunatic for adventure.

If Göran Kropp were living a thousand years ago, his headwear of choice would be a Viking helmet, fashioned of wood and adorned with bull horns.

He might be prowling the coastline for things to plunder, or banging on the table with a frothy mug of mead. But Kropp has both feet planted firmly in the 21st century, in the thick wealds of southern Sweden. So instead, he’s wearing a baseball cap, gunning the gas on his 2000 Opel, and chattering away on his cell phone.

It’s 10 a.m. on a sparkling June morning, and Kropp is piloting the car north across the Øresund Bridge, a mammoth steel structure that connects the Danish city of Copenhagen to the southern tip of Sweden.

The sun is peeling back shaggy blankets of morning fog to reveal the calm, cobalt-blue water of the Baltic Sea. Inside the car, things are a little more chaotic. Instead of watching the road, Kropp is conducting business as if he were at his desk: schmoozing, scheming, joking.

He’s also fiddling with the stereo knobs, scarfing a melting chocolate bar, and, to my dismay, using his knees to steer, making occasional faces as if his expression alone could save us from careering over the guardrail.

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Notes on Writing: The Voices in Our Heads

I want to tell you about a book that, each time I open it, makes me a better writer. You probably haven't heard of it, or of the author, Ted Solotaroff. It’s not a best-seller like Bird by Bird or a popular favorite like Stephen King’s On Writing. In fact, I’ve never seen another copy of this essay collection other than the coffee-stained, dog-eared one I own. But this book—just one essay in it, actually—is my savior. It’s my savior during dark nights of the soul, when I lurch, when I desire to say something meaningful and truthful, when I wish to say it in MY own unique and original voice.

I bought my copy of A Few Good Voices in My Head at a used bookstore in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood during my graduate school years. I don’t recall the shop’s name, but walking its aisles was a Saturday afternoon ritual, especially during the dead of a brutal Chicago winter when the snow flies horizontally off the lake and pelts you in the face like buckshot. This shop was stuffed with books. And they were practically free. Well, $3 per grocery bagful—an amazing deal if you bought small books of poetry, and still awfully good deal if you bought dictionaries and encyclopedias. Moreover,  if you were trading in books that afternoon, your books might be free. Or you might even make a few dollars. Sometimes I felt guilty when I left the shop with two grocery bags full of books and and two extra dollars in my pocket, enough to stop off and get a Chicago hotdog fully loaded.

A Few Good Voices in My Head wasn’t on the shelf where the other books on writing sat. It lay at the bottom of a knee-high stack of books on the floor. When I opened it, I noticed that one chapter was particularly heavily annotated.  Sentences were underlined two and three times. Asterisks indicated the previous owner’s favorite whole paragraphs. In the corner of one page was a math problem: 22 divided by 7, in long division. I had to own this book.

Today, that book is more marked-up than when I bought it.  I’ve underlined my favorite lines. I’ve written asterisks next to meaningful paragraphs. Sometimes my underlines match the previous owners. Sometimes they don’t. The cover is worn and tattered and faded, like a papyrus scroll discovered in a cave by a wandering bedouin millennia after its author had turned to dust. I can’t imagine losing this book.

But enough of this blithe reminiscing. Why is A Few Good Voices in My Head so important to me? How does it save me from dark nights of the soul?

The essay begins with a scene: It’s early 1970s, and we’re in Solotaroff’s office at The American Review. A young writer—I picture a boyish man in his 20s with shaggy hair and wire-rimmed glasses; I picture me in graduate school. This anxious, ambitious kid doesn’t want to write for Rolling Stone. That magazine is too faddish and glib, he says. No, this kid wants to be a writer. He wants to say something meaningful, truthful—and in a voice that readers will remember.

There’s just one problem. This young writer doesn’t know what to write about? Neither does he know what his voice is like.
“So what are you looking for when you select a piece for publication?”  he asks.

Solotarnoff’s answers quickly, with boilerplate editor-speak, explaining that he favors pieces which “seemed necessary for the writer to have written.”

But what does that mean, the young writer wants to know. “OK,” he says, “but look—you write yourself, right? Who do you write for?”
Solotaroff doesn’t dodge this question so easily. He pauses and ponders and then he says the words that I find so meaningful, even magical: “I guess I write for a few good voices in my head.”
This answer appeals to the young writer. Suddenly, he gets it: He says with overt 1970s insouciance: “Right on!”

What does Solotaroff mean?

He explains. I’ll paraphrase. There’s only one way to find your own voice: by listening to your favorite literary influences, the good voices in your head.

That’s the gist, the essence, the gold.

Our heads are full of voices, both good and bad. Lines from favorite books. The styles of favored writers. And these voices are constantly chattering behind the curtain of your thoughts. Don’t ignore this chatter. Tune it in. Pull the voices apart. Listen to them. The reason we remember these voices is because they say what we WANT to say. They say what you NEED to say. They say it better, but who cares? In essence, they already are telling  your story, your truths. So listen!

Solotaroff says it this way:

"These [voices] empower you because they confer upon the enterprise of writing a more powerful and refined version of your way of feeling, your sense of truth.”

More important, they lend hopefulness to a writer’s despair. How? By adopting you, by being your surrogate father or mother.

“By being there, if only in your imagination, [a good voice] prevents you from being an orphan as a writer.”

Listening to them is “like a good friend or a good psychotherapist who brings out and confirms your better nature, who prompts your calmest, most personal, most truthful voice.  It’s also not so very different from prayer.”

I like that last line.  I’ll say it again, “[Listening to the good voices in your head is] also not so very different from prayer.”

And so, every New Year’s, I pause to pray. I listen to the chatter behind the current of my thoughts. Sometimes it’s not easy to pull the voices apart. But when I do, I hear writers such as Joan Didion and Bruce Chatwin. Charles Portis. Mark Doty. Rebecca Solnit. Camus. Hunter Thompson’s “good” stuff and Dostoyevsky. (What a pair that would be to have a drink with?)

Well, this New Year’s, these are the voices I listened to.

Next year, it might be different.

I love the way Solotaroff’s essay ends: When everything breaks down, he says, and you feel like you can’t go on—like you shouldn’t go on—that’s when you must rely on those good voices.

“I know this to be so because each time the crisis hits full force again—when I say I must abandon this, it’s just too painful to go on, I’m too ignorant, too superficial, I don’t have enough time, I can’t write anyway—I’ll open a book of literary pieces…and read a page or two, quiet down, gather myself, and say: Well, that’s what it’s all about, he’s just telling the truth as best he can, get on with it.”

My response to Solotaroff’s wisdom: With casual 1970s-style insouciance, I say,  Right on!

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