John August

John August (@JohnAugust) was on The Writer Files podcast with Kelton Reid (@KeltonReid). This was a new podcast for me – and it was pretty good. First, there is a lot of writer-ness here, but also some great macro ideas for anyone. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • See it to achieve it.
  • The balance of depth and breadth.
  • August’s 2 productivity hacks.
  • Writer’s block (proliferated by a writer’s bloc).
  • General writing tips.


See it to achieve it.

Until Phil Rosenthal and Judah Friedlander praised litterally seeing comedians, I didn’t think about how important this was. It’s really important. August adds this to the idea of seeing is the first step of achieving:

“It sounds really naive, but before the internet it was hard to know how movies were made or how things got written. So it was while I was at Drake that I realized, ‘oh my gosh’ people write movies and I should do that.”

August applied to graduate school at USC and started soon after began his career. 

As August points out, the internet has made this process a lot easier. One tool is Twitter. The people I’ve written about have mentioned two specific ways to use Twitter. The first, is to use Twitter to debunk your opinions.

We stink at realizing when we’re wrong. We often fall for the psychological misstep, “confirmation bias.” We’ll look for things we already agree with. Tadas Viskanta noted that Twitter can be used to fix this error. Expose yourself to contrary opinions he advised. Jason Zweig said, “feed yourself as much disconfirmation as you can.”  Proving yourself wrong is good.

Jeff Bezos praised the value of changing your mind. Maria Popova calls it an “uncomfortable luxury.” About this Tren Griffin quotes Charlie Munger, “Munger likes to say that a year in which you do not change your mind on some big idea that is important to you is a wasted year.”

The second way to use Twitter well is to connected to people who show you what is possible (see it to achieve it). August uses Twitter to promote writing sprints. 

This kind of association, even digitally, can be helpful. Austin Kleon is a fan of our digital connections. Nicholas Megalis said that work is so much easier now because of the internet. 

See it to achieve it is a great slogan – it’s catchy and it rhymes. But I left out the hard middle. The place where you need to build a depth and breadth of skills. Something August has done. 

The balance of depth and breadth.

“There are parallels between journalism and screenwriting,” August says. He doesn’t explicitly point them out, but it’s enough to note that he does. People in creative fields praise folding in other domains. In the same way that chocolate is better with peanut butter, writing is better with other writing. 

 Phil Rosenthal, Judd Apatow, and Brian Koppelman all suggest that people do work in areas beside their main one. The Marc Maron and James Corden interview has this suggestion as well.

August adds his name to the collection of people with this suggestion. He created the Weekend Read app to better read screenplays and scripts. It’s helpful, he says, “to see what movies look like in their non-screen form.” This is a way to expand ones point of view. The most successful people combine a wide range of skills, ideas, and connections to form the base of their creativity cumulation.

But you have to come back to one thing. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg said that directing and producing movies was great, but they had to return to writing. “That’s our homebase,” Rogen said.

Judah Friedlander is someone who admits that he’s in the middle of this process. He’s written books, for a TV show, and done some stand-up. He has a good base. His next step is to do a stand-up special.

August is at a certain level – his next project is for Disney – so how did he get there?

August’s 2 productivity hacks.

1 – August says that his daily balance of work, “depends on where I’m at.” He understands that different stages of projects require different types of work. Adam McKay spoke about this on Slate’s Working podcast. “I spend the first couple of hours identifying what I have to do,” McKay says. “If you don’t identify what you have to do, it feels overwhelming.”

It sounds like August has a similar system for work. If he’s exploring a new project it might take eight hours of wandering. This is good. “The process of research,” August says, “is what usually reveals the interesting things.”

August is echoing Maria Popova who said,

“I just had tea with someone – a writer whose book I’d written about and who reached out and wanted to connect – and that hour-long conversation gave me a dozen ideas to think about, to learn about, and thus to write about (including two books I already ordered based on our chat). Is that “research” in the sense that one deliberately sets out to find something already of interest? No. Is it “research” in terms of the unguided curiosity that lets one discover something previously unknown and succumb to the intellectual restlessness of wanting to learn everything about it? Absolutely.”

She continued:

“And I think that’s part of our challenge today, not just semantically but also practically – we tend to conflate “research” with search, which is always driven by looking for something you already know you’re interested in; but I think the richest “research” is driven by discovery, that intersection of curiosity and serendipity that lets you expand your intellectual and creative comfort zone beyond what you already knew you were looking for.”

2 – August knows how he needs to work. “I try to get something done in the morning, then do less important things during midday,” August says, ”and maybe one more writing sprint at night.”

To know when your energy levels will be higher or lower, or your focus will change is a key understanding for many writers. Malcolm Gladwell noted his understanding in regards to research. Tren Griffin said it’s important to know if you are someone who builds things or notices them.  Rich Roll transformed his life once he understood his tendencies.

August has settled into a good groove. He defines his work and knows the best way to do it. There’s one more thing we should address – August being a writer and all – writer’s block.

Writer’s block.

“You just have to do it,” says August. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg both addressed this: “writer’s block is a term people give for bad weeks,” Goldberg said. “It’s when they lose inspiration,” Rogen added.

Anne Lamott writes that it’s not so much a block as a chasm, “the word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”

It’s one thing to just say, “do the work,” but, if it was that easy you would have done it. If you have writer’s block here are a few idea for getting unblocked (or crossing the chasm).

A – August created, the Writer’s Emergency Pack, to, “Fix plot holes. Spice up stock characters. Rethink your themes.”

B – Brett Steenbarger said that creativity is a mix of analyzing and synthesizing. That is, figure out the details about a situation, then look around to see where that knowledge hasn’t been applied.

C – Penn Jillette said to create what you hate. That’s the thing you can make better he said.

D – Casey Neistat, Kevin Kelly and J.K. Rowling all found creativity in scarcity.

E – Cal Newport is more creative out of the office.  

“Creativity,” August says, “is the ability to picture something that doesn’t exist and find ways to make that exist.”

Writer’s tips.

The podcast had a nice conversation about different writing things. Here’s a few that stood out to me:

– One of August’s favorite is this from Stephen King, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” It’s from King’s wonderful book, On Writing. Though one author already mentioned in this post used adverbs royally. I’ll let you inquire who.

– What makes a good writer?  “It’s not bigger words,” August says, “it’s ways to describe emotional truths.” It’s verbs, great writers have a phalanx of verbs ready to spring into action.

– Good characters, August says, have a clear circumference of what they’re going after. He mentions both Sherlock Holmes and James Bond as some of his favorites, and I need to add one more. The best character, with goals so clear they could be a jewelry store window (which he would probably throw someone through) is Jack Reacher. Malcolm Gladwell explains why.

– August prefers the Kindle for one-off books, but physical copies when he’s revisiting something. “There’s a sense of geography in a printed book that’s really helpful,” August says. Michael Mauboussin said the same thing in his interview.

– August says that he writes by hand to avoid correcting something he’s written. It’s easier to hit the backspace key than erase. This is a good example of how small barriers can stop an action. Tiny obstacles can help us stop us from snacking or make better financial choices.

– August also praises traveling to locations to get into the spirit of the place. Tyler Cowen spoke about the advantages of travel. So does Stephen King in the aforementioned book. Robert Kurson does too. 

If you want more about writers and writing you may enjoy these posts; Simon Rich, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Green, or Steven Kotler.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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