Entry 33: Getting the Trees Right Without Losing the Forest

January 29, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 33rd 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?


It was hot as hell in Wellington this weekend. Hard to complain though given the endless beaches and coastlines; beautiful weather to be lazy by the water.

I’m halfway done with the first chapter covering the Obama years. Much of what would unfold during the Obama era was foreshadowed in that August 2009 conversation between Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il, though none of us knew it at the time. It turns out a friend of mine was actually the author of the memo and accompanied Clinton on the trip. So baller.

It was a productive weekend — 1,800 words. I keep confidently plowing ahead with writing every day and am generally feeling pretty good, but I occasionally wonder if all these words will add up the way I think. Most days when I make good writing progress, it’s because I’ve focused intently on the details of a specific historical episode or sub-section of a chapter.

But when you’re deep among the trees, it’s really hard not to lose the forest. I don’t know how common the feeling is, but I struggle to simultaneously articulate the salient details of an event or conversation without feeling my grip on the larger narrative slip away a bit, at least in the moment. Like I can’t keep the macro and micro picture in my head at the same time.

In the diary John Steinbeck kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, there were days when he worried about whether the various scenes he wrote actually fit together into a story that both made sense and moved the reader. That dude had a bad case of imposter syndrome.

But he dealt with it by just focusing for a few hours on a specific scene, getting all the details right and making those few pages sing. He wasn’t sure it added up to anything, but he made progress by making progress, one foot in front of the other.

I guess I’m doing the same thing. I try like hell not to lose the forest, but my first loyalty is inevitably to getting the trees right, at least on the days when words happen to flow. Usually, highly productive writing days only become so productive because of a fealty to getting the descriptions and explanations of a few paragraphs (or pages) right.

I read and re-read every page I write a hundred times, and I read through every chapter at the end of writing it at least once before moving on. But as soon as I can afford to, I need to spend a day sometime soon, step back, and just read everything I’ve got as if I’m seeing it for the first time. Hopefully the manuscript will at least be the sum of its parts, if not more.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.