Entry 59: On Seeing Things Through to the End
Editor’s Note: This is the 59th 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?
Somehow I wrote 1,322 words today in the space of about three hours. That’s a lot. The early chapters were slow going, but the Obama years and now the beginning of the Trump era have been coming out rather easily.
I can think of two reasons why the words have flowed for these chapters. One is that I was part of the Obama years, and have been observing and commentating about every moment of the Trump administration. Because of its recentness, the information is easily accessible and easily recallable.
The other reason is that, following Tom Ricks’ advice, I’ve focused on structuring the narrative chronologically for these chapters. 90 percent of the paragraphs talk about things that occurred before the paragraphs that follow them. Explaining policy in the Obama and Trump eras lends itself to more or less sequential storytelling.
Even though the words have been coming with an unexpected ease recently (knock on wood), it’s feeling like a grind getting through the chapters. In my mind this book is already finished—it was from the start—along with about half a dozen more that I’ve yet to write. Following through on that vision is the really tough part. I want this book to be done already!
This is going to sound crazy, but in my mind I’ve accomplished a lot of things I haven’t actually done yet. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, even though what’s on that list is has changed over time. Sometimes I get an idea to do something in my head and my mind just obsesses about it until I at least try.
I’m also chronically paranoid about not finishing things that I start, which is a hell of a trait to pair with constantly needing to try things. There was a scene in Mad Men where one of Don Draper’s ex-wives tells him that he only likes the beginnings of things. That line stuck with me, and I hated that it did. Before I went for a PhD, I was in an MBA program and hated it. I was doing well in the program, but I was wired differently than the rest of my cohort, and the whole thing just made me feel like I hated learning. It was about a third of the way through the program that I started applying to PhD programs while working fulltime at the Pentagon.
As soon as I got acceptance letters for PhD programs I bailed on the MBA. I had only really enrolled in the MBA in the first place because I wanted to continue learning but never thought I was cut out for a PhD. But even though I hated every minute of it and felt like it was a waste of my time, it drove me crazy that I didn’t see it through. I’m very afraid of being a person who doesn’t see things to completion, and it adds to the already heightened sense of urgency in the work that I do.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.