war on the rocks

Entry 71: Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past

March 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 71st 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?

I wrote 463 words in a little less than an hour. It was all building blocks. Had trouble defending my writing time today. So many competing demands lately I can barely keep my head above water. I get through it—so far anyway—thanks to a lingering habit, from high school, of budgeting every minute of my day on post-it notes.

The luxurious days are those where I have no need to schedule myself down to 15-minute blocks of time; where I can take care of the stuff I have to do without paying any attention to my calendar. I’ve had to lean pretty heavily on post-it notes during this book project, especially since February.

Prior to me writing this, very few people were aware that The Great Gatsby had a profound effect on me. And not for a lot of the typical reasons. It does portray a great romance between Jay and Daisy, it is the great American novel, and it does transport you into the Gilded Age. For all those reasons and more, that book means a lot to a lot of people. I appreciate those things too, but for me it was a guide to a better life.

At the end of the book, after Gatsby dies (spoiler alert), his buddy Nick is talking to Gatsby’s dad, who pulls out an old copy of the book Hopalong Cassidy. The book belonged to Gatsby when he was a kid, and he kept it with him as an adult. Gatsby’s dad showed Nick the inside of the back cover. It said “the word SCHEDULE and the date September 12, 1906. And underneath:

Rise from bed………………………………………………….6.00 AM

Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling…………………6.15-6.30

Study electricity, etc………………………………………..7.15-8.15

Work……………………………………………………………….8.30-4.30 PM

Baseball and sports………………………………………….4.30-5.00

Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it….5.00-6.00

Study needed inventions………………………………….7.00-9.00

GENERAL RESOLVES

No wasting time at Shafters

No more smoking or chewing

Bath every other day

Read one improving book or magazine per week

Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week

Be better to parents”

This was profound to high school me. Gatsby was this model of success, and here was his formula for how he became that, starting as nothing, coming from nowhere. You gotta understand, I was growing up in what I recognized as a bad situation, looking for a way out, full of fire in the belly, but no roadmap whatsoever. I didn’t know where to start. I honestly didn’t even know how to apply to college (class of 2000—nobody used the internet yet).

Gatsby’s early years gave me something to work with. So eleventh grade me started writing out daily schedules like my man Gatsby. I started working out every day, and boxing. I knew nothing about nutrition, but did my best to eat clean. I didn’t really try any harder at school, but I started regularly reading “one improving book,” just like Gatsby. The habit of reading started with The Great Gatsby. I also started writing every day; total nonsense but writing all the same. Then, when the time came, I joined the military.

My whole life since then has been built on a few big decisions interspersed among a lot—like a lot—of post-it notes filled with daily schedules. I don’t do it every day, but when I do I feel like each post-it note is helping me build toward something. I can transform myself through discipline and routine. That’s what I came to believe, and The Great Gatsby was what inspired it. Almost 20 years later and that habit lives on. It helps me get through the crazy days in this book project. And probably long after.

 

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.