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by Peter Moskos

October 7, 2010

On Writing

People sometimes think I don't work much (an opinion only reinforced when they see me having my morning coffee at 2pm and still in my bathrobe at dinner time). But I'm a night owl and I work from home.

So along with teaching four classes (a very heavy load for a college professor), I have to write. And writing is work. To those who think it's easy to write a book, I suggest they try it. To those who can churn out a book a year, I applaud them (and wonder how they do it). Writing is hard work. And it's not fun.

A friend and fellow academic author put it this way in an email:
There are days in writing (for me usually when I have a decent draft of something and am crafting) that it flows, but most of the time it's work, work, work, work.

People who don't understand writing or who use formulas or hire ghostwriters who use formulas think that a book is like having a baby, nine months and it's done. such total utter bullshit.
Now I've never had a baby, but I only wish writing was such a passive process that got pushed out after nine months (not to mention the fun that leads to babies in the first place).

I've been working on this book for a while and I'm still not done. When writing, I can produce about 1,500 words a night. But that's only some nights. Because I'm not productive most nights, my actually production is more like 100 words a night. And that's just the first draft.

Now that I have a (rough) first draft of my book, it's more work. Even after getting all the words on paper--and at 30,000 words it's a very short book--it's still a lot of slow painful work. Just to give you some idea of the editing process, here are a two pages of a draft of my forthcoming book, In Defense of Flogging.

So why do I do it? Sometimes I wonder. Every other job I've had has been easier, and yet still I choose this vocation. What did I create as a cop? Hopefully I helped some people, but Baltimore is no worse off without me there. And as a waiter I helped rich people enjoy their dinner, but waiters are just supporting cast to the food. And when I was a boat captain in Amsterdam I learned about boats and made a lot of tourists very happy. That was fun. But at some point I got tired of the same old tourist conversations (and rainy weather).

The work in those jobs created no lasting product. And none of it could be mistaken for art. Maybe I write because I can't draw and don't make sculpture. A book is, or at least should be, a little piece of art. Maybe I like that idea. I really don't know.

On any objective level, 99 percent of all writers don't get enough credit or money to make it all worthwhile, but still people write. I guess there's something satisfying about creating something from nothing, at least when you're done with it all.

But while doing it? Man, there's very little I wouldn't prefer to do than write. When I'm sitting at my computer at 4AM, sometimes I think about how nice it would be to have some other job where I could show up, do my job, and go home and watch TV guilt free.

And yet I wouldn't change my job for any other (except major league baseball player and Supreme Court Justice). Why is that?

Perhaps writing involves a deeper calling. I'd like to think I'm doing something that will last and might actually (in some small way) change the world for the better. And though the craft of writing is a tough, I'd like to think I'm good at it. Plus, publishing is, in theory, part of my job.

It's great to have written. Too bad it's not more fun to write.

Look for my new book, In Defense of Flogging, to be published by Basic Books, in 2011.


Dana King said...

Not for nothing, but COP IN THE HOOD changed my views on the war on drugs. I'd been wondering if this was the way to go for a while, but that book cemented it for me. So your writing had a positive effect on at least one person. I hope to get a chance to meet you if you come to Baltimore or DC for a signing next year.

Good luck with the book.

Mrs Gotti Rules said...

How interesting, I was just talking about you and your book today to my class. I had a student ask me how long it takes to write a book and if it is hard. I told him about you and how it took you a long time. I also stressed how you had to write and edit before the final copy. It is nice to have you to reference to when I am teaching the younger ones about writing! Sorry we missed you at the Eastern Shore.

Gotti Rules said...

What's the matter buddy, someone giving you a hard time about writing a book? I will be the first to tell you that writing is hard work. It will take me hours just to write these few sentences to you. Just remind these people that you have friends like me who are not the sharpest tools in the shed and would be more than happy to kick their asses. As you know, I can honestly say that the last guy I fought is no longer here. This is one of the benefits of having dumb, but strong friends. Good luck with new book and hope to see you soon!

CPM said...

As we know how well cops write....... I wish I could have just quarter of your writing skills. When I read this blog ( and book(s)) not only do I get informed, I believe it helps improve my writing skills. You are an informative, creative and skilled writer. Keep up the good work!!

"Professor Moskos's 10 rules for writing" I love it!!!

The Elements of Style.. I need to read this book too. It is good for cops?

PCM said...

CPM, thanks for the kind words. It's safe to say that Strunk and White didn't have cops in mind when they wrote Elements of Style, but actually, yes, it is good for cops: keep things short. Get to the point. Don't say more than you have to. Though it's OK for cops to use passive verbs.

Mrs. Gotti Rules, so nice to hear from you. We missed you!

Gotti, You're not as dumb as you think you are. In fact, I'm sure you even taught me a thing or two back in the days. But for the life of me I can't think of what they might be.

Anonymous said...

wirting es herd.

Jay Livingston said...

For me it was like running (back when I could run). Every so often I enjoyed doing it, but mostly I felt good about having done it. (The damn elliptical machine doesn't even provide that satisfaction.) And with writing, there's the possibility that someone else will get something from it. (BTW, I assume that in this book you are at least waving a hand to Graeme Newman as you go by.)

PCM said...

Dana, Thank you. Alas, I think the year of book talks signing is all but over. Books fade away pretty quickly (but hopefully lots of professors will assign Cop in the Hood in their classes!).

Jay, Indeed I give Newman a fond wave. Our books are very different in style, but the substantive argument not all together dissimilar.

I spoke to Newman briefly a while back, just to let him know what I was doing and to make sure his life didn't turn into a living hell because of publishing Just and Painful. He assured me, excepting a few kooky emails, his life and career are fine.

Jennifer said...

Peter, you know what I have to say about writing. There's one more myth that needs to be cleared up. Some individuals think that not only do you make gobs of money when in most cases you spend far more than you make, but also a sexy subject instantly translates into a movie. so so far from the truth. We write - you and I - I think - less because it satisfies some theoretical notions of good sociology but because we want to tell a story about real people, real things (drugs) and, in writing, too, for me at least, I recreate relationships with the people I've studied, in the "script" or images and words I (we) create. While are work involves layers of interpretation, we also try to give others a voice and that means something I think. I keep putting off writing my next big project... haven't collected much of the data but I have enough in my head that I could begin. It's just so frickin' hard.

CPM said...

Peter, speaking of books, I should have mentioned this one in my earlier post. I am currently reading "American Original" "The Life and constitution of supreme court Justice Antonin Scalia" writen by Joan Biskupic.

No matter which side of the fence you on, conservative or liberal. This is very good reading about Scalia, past and present justices and the court. Even though it's written about Scalia, in my opinion, it's not one sided either.

Randy Makiej said...

When you talk about people seeing you take your coffee at 2PM, certainly you're referring to the metal fabricator, and not me. Cuz you're my hero. Keep on truckin'!