Narrowing The Focus

June 30, 2016 § 4 Comments

This job demands total focus

This job demands total focus

The acclaimed experimental press New Directions has nine employees, and it always will. Salaries are low (substantially supplemented by a bonus-like system), and the number of books it may publish each year is limited, all in accordance with the wishes of founder James Laughlin and the strictures of the trust he endowed to support the press. Maria Bustillos writes in the New Yorker:

New Directions evolved as it did because its founder was as far-seeing in business as he was in matters of taste. Laughlin wasn’t looking to corner a market or to disrupt anything; his ambition was to create an institution that would last.

…When New Directions decides to pursue a book, it moves quickly, in part because it’s a small firm offering advances that are usually in the low-four-figure range. The editors must be confident in their sensibility; they take risks on unknown poets and authors, and take them fast. The upside for authors is that royalties are paid on an escalating scale, so when a book succeeds, they stand to make more money; sometimes a great deal more…Relatively unknown writers…benefit most of all, perhaps, from the intangible assets New Directions provides them: instantaneous status—the heady position of being on a backlist with Nabokov and Borges, and contemporary authors like César Aira and László Krasznahorkai, who were finalists last year for the Man Booker International Prize—and expert institutional support.

Reading about New Directions’ strategies in both acquisitions and marketing, I can’t help but admire their narrowness of focus. When you only produce a few books a year, no one gets lost in the shuffle, or even falls into the dreaded valley of the midlist. The staff can focus on promotion, hand-selling, and, as president Barbara Epler put it about a risky title, “I can totally guarantee you that we will get lots of reviews, because I will chew on people until they review it. I’ll just personally chew on people.”

What a luxury! And for the authors, too–how wonderful to have that kind of backing from a respected house, how wonderful to have a publisher who (probably!) answers your calls, a publicist who knows your name without having to pull up a database.

Right now, writers are pulled in a hundred directions. Build platform. Practice your craft. Be part of the literary community. Read widely. Keep up with trends. Blog. Publish essays. Teach (and make PowerPoint presentations). Promote. It’s all too easy to end up with a checked-off list of tasks that were only tangential to the actual making of words. We are more responsible than ever for finding a home for our work in the world, with more tools and more outlets but less time and support.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been analyzing my work methods. I thought, upon retiring from my non-writing job (fire-eater, see above), that my days would be wide-open vistas. Start the morning with some freewriting, spend an hour or two on one project, switch to another, break for lunch, edit for a client, wrap up and have a “normal” evening like people whose work is done at five. I thought this would make me “professional” and “grown-up.”


Turns out I run on what I call the “theatrical” model: several weeks or months of rumination, then the sudden onset of a panicked two- or three-week rush to accomplish everything possible before a hard, non-negotiable deadline, followed by some post-deadline tweaking. This is exactly the process for rehearsing a play, and since my training was in acting and directing (my MFA is actually in playwriting), and I have spent my entire professional life staging and participating in theatrical events, it makes sense that this is how I work. A fellow performer/event-planner put it to me as, “I’m going to do about the same quality of job if I do it all at the last minute or if I agonize about it for six weeks. I’d rather concentrate on it all at once.” As a writer, I do want to take time to refine my work in subsequent drafts–but finishing any single draft needs that sense of urgency, or I just don’t get it done.

I need a narrowed focus. I need one project on my plate at a time, and I need to pull all-nighters or rise with the prayer call or skip husband-time. I’ve actually debated taking a cheap cruise for the sake of being stuck in one place with impractical internet, to finish a book. (Dactyls on the Lido Deck, anyone?)

The crunch-time method is probably not for everyone. For starters, I have a high level of privilege in my life right now, and I don’t have a day job or a child. But what we can all do is honestly confront our focus as it is. Are we better at small bites of several things in a row? Or is our work better when we gorge on a single project, then collapse exhausted when it’s done? It’s okay to let go of how we “should” work, and dive into how we do work.

What’s your method?

Maria Bustillos’ article on New Directions is short and worth a read.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and neurotic enough to have looked up that “Lido Deck” is indeed a dactyl.

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