(DURHAM, North Carolina) Tonight I’ll be in Cameron Indoor Arena for the Duke-Wake Forest game. Since November I’ve had a front row seat at this basketball cathedral while observing Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils for a season-long magazine story I’m writing.
At the same time, I’m finishing another book that I started researching nearly two years ago. I’m on deadline with both projects, which means I have to produce. In a three-week span between Christmas and the second week of January I churned out 21,000 words on the book. The following week I wrote over 7,000 words on the Duke story.
I’m not bragging. This is more like confession. I’m often asked how I balance between work, family and other priorities. I don’t. Balance implies equal distribution of time. If I aimed for that I’d be a pretty poor writer. And at the end of the day I’d still end up feeling guilty for coming up short at home and elsewhere.
Exceptional work takes exceptional time. I’m not implying that I’m an exceptional writer. But every time I write I try to produce something extraordinary. I owe that to my subject and my publisher, not to mention the audience. Most important, I owe it to my family since writing is my occupation.
My grandfather Merle Shelton was a WWII vet who spent his career working at a shipyard that manufactured submarines. He had blue collar in his blood. When I was a boy he taught me to work by making me clear brush, dig ditches, and split and haul wood. Winter snow, summer heat, and cuts and scrapes were no excuse. Once I got married he repeatedly told me: “Jeffrey, your responsibility is to work. Don’t fool around.”
Merle didn’t approve of my career choice. To him writing wasn’t a real job. I set out to show him otherwise. From day one I wrote as if I were digging a ditch with him looking over my shoulder. No fooling around. Every time I published another book I gave him one with the same inscription: “Thanks for teaching me to work.” Eventually he had ten of my books and a box of my magazine articles in his living room. Just before he died two years ago he gave them all back and told me he was proud. That was more satisfying than hitting the New York Times bestseller list.
I still cry when I think about him being gone. When I’m on deadline I think of him and I don’t fool around. So I am pretty productive. But I’m also pretty absent on the home front and elsewhere, especially during the cold, dark months of winter. After the holidays I tune out the rest of the world. Surrounded by stacks of interview transcripts and photographs of my wife, I lock in.
My routine is simple. I get to my office early in the morning. I leave late at night. I bring food so I don’t have to come out in between. I get by on 30 minutes of exercise per day and six hours of sleep per night. I nod off thinking about my narrative. I wake up doing the same.
I ignore phone calls, emails, and text messages unless they are vital. I also don’t take days off. Not even Sundays. That’s not necessarily by choice. Once the inspiration comes I can’t focus on anything else.
Even when I am home during this stage I’m often not there. At the dinner table my kids laugh at me because I stare into space while chewing my food to pulp. From the opposite end of the table Lydia raises her eyebrows and waves her hand: “Jeff, where are you?”
I’m with my subject. Or I’m visualizing a better scene, crisper dialogue. Perhaps this explains why I went to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty multiple times over the holidays.
I can relate to Ben Stiller’s Major Tom complex. I’ve long thought that David Bowie’s use of dialogue in “Space Oddity” is brilliant:
Ground control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on…. Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.
This is Major Tom to Ground Control. I’m stepping through the door. And I’m floating in a most peculiar way. And the stars look very different today…. Tell my wife I love her very much.
I’m not proud of any of this. But I’m not ashamed, either. It’s who I am. It’s how I work. In fact, movies are a great source of inspiration to me when I write.
When I run out of steam I head to the theater to relax. My wife or my sons often accompany me. Cinema enables me to do two things at once – spend time with family and escape in a good story. In the past month I’ve seen everything from Grudge Match to American Hustle. But the greatest burst of inspiration came from Saving Mr. Banks. Watching composers Richard and Robert Sherman wrestle with the challenge of putting Mary Poppins to lyrics gave me goose bumps.
I related to the Shermans’ long nights alone at the piano in the Disney studios. Writing requires solitude. It’s lonely. But during the reporting process there is room for family. Lydia has made multiple trips to Duke with me. From my seat at center court I can see her in blue behind the Duke bench.
Her presence makes me a better journalist. Her looks are a distraction. But her glance reminds me to never settle for good enough.
Lydia has also gotten to know my main subject: Jabari Parker. As a result she knows what kind of kid he is. I don’t have to explain this story’s significance to her. She knows.
Even though I get home late, my daughters – 7 and 11 – wait up for me. I’m too tired to read them stories. Instead, we turn out the light, pile into the bottom bunk, and listen to 60’s music on my iPhone. Over the past month the girls have fallen in love with The Association.
Cherish is the word I use to describe.
All the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside
You don’t know how many times I wished that I had told you.
You don’t know how many times I wished that I could hold you.
You don’t know how many times I wished that I could mold you into someone who could cherish me as much as I cherish you.
Then they fall asleep.