war on the rocks

Entry 25: Stacking Ammo to Take Down the Chapters

January 17, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 25th 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?

 

Got around 710 words today, which is a respectable pace. If I could manage that daily, I’d be ahead of schedule.

Few people doubt that Eminem is one of the best freestyle rappers of all time. In a 2010 interview, he let the world in on one of his best practices, which he called “stacking ammo.” You can watch the interview clip to hear him explain it (in a different part of the interview he points out how many words he can make rhyme with “orange,” lol). Basically, he collects phrases, sentence fragments, and half-formed ideas that he compiles over time — stacking ammo — that he draws from in the heat of a rap battle. Without stacked ammo, he’d draw blanks in battle.

I thought this was brilliant, and frankly, I’ve depended on idiosyncratic tricks like this to get by at every stage of life. Ever since I saw the Eminem interview, I’ve tried to be deliberate about accumulating useful research resources, quotes, and primary source evidence that I anticipate being able to use in the future. I’m sure a lot of scholars engage in this kind of practice, especially because new web platforms make stacking ammo easier than ever (I use Zotero but there are others).

Because I’m just starting out writing the chapter on the Obama years, I’ve been spending more time stacking ammo than writing, and that was definitely the case today. As I write a given chapter, the outline I started with starts to change based on the ammo I pull out of storage. My Obama chapter outline is a bit in flux.

The pace of my writing also depends partly on the quality and quantity of ammo I’ve stacked by the time I start writing. Do I have a stack of useful articles, congressional testimony, and the like? If so then I’m off to the races. Not to oversell the concept (which normal people might refer to as something less combative), but I imagine there’s a correlation between my ability to kick a chapter’s ass and the ammo I’ve stacked before (and while) I write.

 

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

Image: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson