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For instance, I’ve known some newspaper reporters over the years who just can’t write a story until their backs are against the wall. They just can’t do it. Give them a week of lead time, and the story will sit and stew in a newsroom netherworld until that 11th and final witching hour. Then they dose up on caffeine and nicotine and manage to tune out all the ancillary sounds of a bustling newsroom as they pound out copy. These people are machines.
I’ve known some magazine writers who absolutely refuse to make so much as a phone call on a story unless the preliminary conditions are ideal. If the ink on the contract isn’t dry, and if a specific word count -- along with a date when the story will run -- hasn’t been guaranteed by the editor, they’ll bide their time and put the onus right back on the assignment desk. These people are prima donnas.
Then there is Philip Roth, who, I believe, is in a category all his own. He’s a machine whose books are so elaborate and well crafted that he has every right to be a prima donna if he wants to be. But he’s not. He’s the real deal and the standard that people like me wish to emulate. Here’s some proof:
Since 1959, Roth’s routine amounts to waking up and writing. All day. Every day. He retreats to his writer’s hovel attached to his Connecticut home and types. All day. Every day. He takes breaks to walk in the neighboring woods and commune with nature. Then it’s back to work. At the end of an eight-hour day, if he has one usable page, he’s content. Many days, however, he’ll scrap everything he’s written. When asked in an interview on PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer why he does what he does, his answer was as steady and direct as you’d expect from a man who, at 76, has written 30 books and counting. “Without a novel, I’m empty,” he said. “I’m empty and not very happy.”
The book ideas, he said, come about through a devout and almost tedious study of history. Then, when asked what he tries to do for us, the readers, Roth’s response was shocking: “… I don’t think about the reader. I think about the book.”
That, folks, is discipline. It’s discipline married to intensity and integrity, the trappings of any good professional. Take the Yormark brothers, for instance (who are profiled on page 46). One is the CEO of the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets, the other the president of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers. Through a Roth-ian form of devotion and control, they’ve managed to make their respective franchises, long the doormats of their respective markets, the hot tickets in their towns.
Which brings me back to the questions I’m frequently asked. I’m empty without something to write about, and I very much consider the story. But a Philip Roth I am not, nor will I ever be. He’s just too good. How hard is it to come up with these column ideas? Not terribly. I’m constantly thinking about them. All day. Every day. Am I always happy with what I publish? Only when you are.