Tim Ferriss had an amazing conversation with Jerry Seinfeld that covers Seinfeld’s writing process, the importance of systems, and life. It’s probably the best podcast I’ve every listened to.
Here’s the takeaway: Your brain is a lump of meat in your skull. It responds to rules, rewards, and routines, so you can train it like a schnauzer. If you want to consistently succeed in a difficult field, you have to train it this way. To illustrate, Seinfeld goes through some of his routines for writing, fitness, and meditation.
That is a gross oversimplification. The whole podcast is well worth your time. I’ve pulled out a few highlights below.
First, a bit about Seinfeld’s writing process, with shades of Garner’s madman/architect/carpenter/judge:
What’s in front of me is I’m usually about 15 or 20 pages of stuff that’s in various states of development. And then there’s a smaller book of just really, really random things. Like, when you’re on a cell phone call and the call drops, and then you reconnect with the person, they’ll go, “I don’t know what happened there.” As if anyone is expecting them to know anything about the incredibly complex technology of the cell phone, they offer this little, I don’t know if it’s an excuse or an apology. They go, “I don’t know what happened there.” So anyway, so I don’t know. So that’s an example of something in that, my little tiny notebook, that I don’t know what to do with that. But it’s just so stupid to me and funny.
So that to me is like an archery target, 50 yards away. Then I take out my bow and my arrow and I go, “Let me see if I can hit that. Let me see if I can create something that I could say to a room full of humans in a nightclub, that will make them see what I see in that.” There’s something stupid and funny about that to me. That’s the very, very beginning. So then I’ll write something about it. It’ll be, if I’m lucky, it’ll be a half a page or a page on a yellow legal pad and I’ll write that. Then in the session the next day, if I get around to it, I will see it again and I will see what I have and what I like and I don’t like. And as any writer can tell you, it’s 95 percent rewrite.
So I have two phases. There is the free-play creative phase. Then there is the polish and construction phase of, and I love to spend inordinate really, I mean, it’s not wasteful to me, because that’s just what I like to do, amounts of time refining and perfecting every single word of it until it has this pleasing flow to my ear. Then it becomes something that I can’t wait to say. And then we go from there to the stage with it. From the stage, the audience will then — I imagine, it’s a very scientific thing to me. It’s like, “Okay, here’s my experiment,” and you run the experiment. Then the audience just dumps a bunch of data on you, of, “This is good, this is okay, this is very good, this is terrible.” That goes into my brain from performing it on stage. Then it’s back through the rewrite process and then new ideas will come.
It’s just millions of different kinds of development. It’s just that. So you’re just trying to get — you’re just going to that place of creating, fixing, jettisoning. It’s extremely occupying. It’s never boring. The frustration I’m so used to at this point, I don’t even notice it. And it’s just work time. It’s just work time. Which, and I like the way athletes talk about, “I got to get my work in. Did you get your work in?” I like that phrase. One of the reasons I was looking forward to doing the show with you, is I know that it’s something you are very interested in.
And some more about systems and routines:
A lot of my life is — I don’t like getting depressed. I get depressed a lot. I hate the feeling, and these routines, these very difficult routines, whether it’s exercise or writing, and both of them are things where it’s brutal. That’s another thing I was explaining to my daughter. She’s frustrated that writing is so difficult, because no one told her that it’s the most difficult thing in the world. It’s the most difficult thing in the world is to write.
People tell you to write like you can do it, like you’re supposed to be able to do it. Nobody can do it. It’s impossible. The greatest people in the world can’t do it. So if you’re going to do it, you should first be told: “What you are attempting to do is incredibly difficult. One of the most difficult things there is, way harder than weight training, way harder, what you’re summoning, trying to summon within your brain and your spirit, to create something onto a blank page.” So that’s another part of my systemization technique, learn how to encourage yourself. That’s why you don’t tell someone what you wrote. And be proud of yourself, treat yourself well for having done that horrible, horribly impossible thing.
The whole thing is gold. Highly recommended. As a complement, here is Seinfeld explaining how to write a joke.