The Perils of Beachfront Writing

December 19, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


Busy day! In the morning I did an impromptu interview with TV1, New Zealand’s main television station. Television is the most exhausting interview format, because I have to pay attention to how I appear and I can be a bit of a spaz visually. Last night I also agreed to write a quick-turn, 1,000-word op-ed about the new National Security Strategy (NSS) for the Lowy Institute. I started it the night before and polished up this morning. I should’ve refused to do it in favor of working on the book, but this may be the Trump administration’s only NSS and I felt the need to weigh in.

In the afternoon, I took the family on an hour-drive from central Wellington up the Kapiti Coast, spending a couple nights at a beach house before Christmas. One of the many virtues of New Zealand is that the holiday season coincides with summer, which is almost too much of a good thing. Much of the afternoon was spent getting settled into our rental, along with the blissful distraction of having the beach as our front yard. This place is so beautiful — and the air so fragrant — that I feel a little guilty for enjoying it when I know I have work to do.

Despite all this, I somehow managed to put a down payment of about 330 words on Chapter 3, which I wrote directly from memory without needing to reference much up front. It helps that my 10,000 hours (a la Malcom Gladwell) have been spent on coercion theory and Korean security. Still, I took more than an hour trying to figure out how I should organize and present the chapter…and I’m almost positive it’s not right.

If this were a traditional academic book, like my first, this chapter would be the “theory” chapter, where I set forth a framework that then gets applied or tested in subsequent chapters. No way that’s going to work for a general audience. But then what should it be? Do I skip it and just jump straight into the history? I went back and looked at books whose style I’d like to emulate, like Hal Brands’ Making the Unipolar Moment. These books present chronological histories and lack what I’d consider “functional” or theoretical chapters. But I feel like the contemporary historical narrative I’m trying to present loses some of its potency if the reader doesn’t understand where the risks of war — nuclear and otherwise — lie. I don’t know. For now, the priority is just getting words on paper. I can nip, tuck, or overhaul it later. Maybe the writing process itself will help me sort out how to approach this.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.