Old-Fashioned Reading & Writing

Posted on March 7, 2015

This is a cross-post from the Military Writers Guild Medium.

Old Fashioned Reading and Writing: An Interview with Member Ty Mayfield

During my recent paternity leave for the birth of my precious little Madeline my reading included a number of references to modelling behavior for success. In that same time I became a new member of the Military Writers Guild. I began reflecting on the aspirations of some of my fellow inductees on why they committed to the Guild. A number of my fellow Guild members shared my expectation — iron sharpening iron. I wanted to find a community that would challenge me to be the best writer I could become. The synthesis of these aspirations and my reading on modelling behavior urged me to reach out and begin the sharpening process.

Modelling behavior for success is not merely finding a successful writer and mirroring their behavior. It is more of finding the particular thread that is woven into the material of successful writers. It is discovering the commonalities of both good and bad behavior to find what best reveals the formula, the syntax, of good writers.

In the weeks that follow, I will be reaching out to fellow Guild members in search of that syntax. Through the generosity of other Guild members, I will conduct interviews to illuminate their writing routines. I would like to reveal what rituals they have for preparing for their lives as writers — whether part-time or full-time. I would like to discover how they find inspiration for writing, where they find creativity, and where they find their passion.

Over the course of the weeks to come I anticipate finding commonalities among their routines. I anticipate finding some commonalities based on the military community that is the foundation this Guild. The uniformed Service members, veterans, family members, and defense civilians come from a particular community that has its own culture; I expect to find this culture prominent in their rituals. I hope to discover new rituals within the culture. I hope to share new habits with the Guild.

First up is Ty Mayfield. Ty is a founding member of the Guild, the Communications Director @Strategy_Bridge, and a traveler whose journeys are sponsored by Uncle Sam. Currently, his major writing projects include a memoir of his extensive time in Afghanistan and a collaborative fiction endeavor. I first connected with Ty on twitter through his tweets of donkeys in Kabul traffic — a sinkhole I hope he finds again on his next journey. Ty introduced me to the Guild and has been influential in connecting me with a host of fascinating characters.

We met at the former Ground Zero Cafe for a chat. We discovered that children would not be kind to his current writing rituals and that he spent two wintery weeks perfecting the Old Fashioned.

[John DeRosa] You have a pre-deployment routine, a deployment routine. You have a home front routine. What are some of your daily routines?

[Ty Mayfield] At home I am up early. I try to get up around 530am. It gives me about an hour to do things around the house — get the dog fed, get the coffee pot going. If the newspaper is there I will read the paper and try to stay away from email for a half hour or hour or so. Just get my mind started.

[JD] Is there a morning ritual that you do to get your mind in order?

[TM] I spend the first part of my morning taking care of something else. Taking care of the dog serves two purposes. She’s hungry and needs attention and it gives me an initial task to get up and moving. It gives me a chance to focus on getting my morning started before I wake my wife.

[JD] Is your newspaper without distractions something you do to focus?

[TM] I’m old fashioned that way — reading a print newspaper. It gives me a chance to slow down and digest things at a pace I am comfortable with. There is also not the distraction of advertisements that just infuriate me while I am reading things online. After going through the front page section of the paper I usually get my email up. Then I might try to take care of business for The Bridge and edit a piece if I have time.

There are some mornings if I have an idea fresh in my mind, I will just sit down, open a word document and just write. I will stream it for a half hour or whatever I have in me. I have a hard stop at 6am where I need to get my wife up so we can work out together.

[JD] Is the writing a regular thing or is it something that time allows?

[TM] No. It’s if I wake up with an idea in my head. This sometimes happens. Maybe once a week that happens. The other days it’s just reading the newspaper and then I will try to get some things for The Bridge taken care of; get my personal email cleared out so I am not thinking about that as the rest of the morning goes on. I also try to get something things lined up for twitter as well.

[JD] When you have an idea in your head, was there something you did the night before where sleeping made a synthesis of ideas?

[TM] Yeah. I end my days the same way as I start them — by reading. I will sit in bed and literally read until I fall asleep. That usually requires that I re-read something the next night, but that’s how I chip away at my reading. If I have been thinking about something throughout the day, then I read someone else’s words or thoughts, I think that while I am sleeping those words and thoughts come together for a new idea. It will happen often after I work out when I am taking the dog for a walk with my wife. Every now and then our stray conversations allow me to talk things out with my wife. Sometimes this creates an “aha” moment where I go straight to writing it down in my Moleskine when I get back to the house to sketch that idea out.

[JD] How does your routine change on the weekend to decompress?

[TM] It does. I still try and get up before my wife, about an hour later — 630am or so. My weekend mornings are the same. On Saturdays my wife works so I will take her to work and I will end up sitting in a cafe in Alexandria, usually at the Grape and Bean in Old Town and I will write for two hours. After that I will pack up and move down to Chadwicks. I will get a pint, read and write in my moleskine for another hour or two until my wife is done with work.

[JD] Kids will disrupt that routine.

[TM] Kids would destroy my Saturday.

[JD] Dude, I get up at four just to have that time you talked about.

[TM] I can only imagine.

On Sunday, my wife and I are off so that is usually a day where we try to spend time at home together. If we leave the house it’s just to go to the commissary. That’s it. We don’t run errands. We sit on the couch. I read and write. She reads. We just try to relax.

[JD] Is writing and reading for you that decompression?

[TM] Yes it is. We don’t have a TV at home. The TV is never on because it doesn’t exist. There is always music on so the house is really quiet. Reading and writing is a big part of my decompression.

[JD] What is the book you’re most likely to give as a gift or one you’ve given as a gift the most?

[TM] I have given Siddhartha [Hermann Hesse] and Man’s Search for Meaning [Viktor Frankl]. Usually as a gift but it’s not a birthday or going away present. If I see someone is having a tough time of it or someone working through a problem and needs a little direction in life. I have copies of these books at home and I will pick up copies at the used book store.

[JD] I usually give, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” It’s a child’s book…something you don’t have to worry about right now.

[JD] What are you reading lately?

[TM] I just finished David Greene’s, Midnight in Siberia and before that Paul Theroux, The Tao of Travel. There’s a travel theme to my reading. I really enjoy reading travel memoirs and travel essays I think travelers view things differently than how people view places where they work. Even when I am deploying for work, I try to view my trip as a traveler and to view these locations through travelers’ eyes not through the eyes of a guy in the military sent there to do a specific task.

Reading travel essays and memoirs opens your eyes up to how other people see things. The most valuable part of some of these books is that we learn about the cultures we operate in or travel through by learning how they treat guests. How they treat visitors.

There is a lot of great travel work written on Afghanistan. The Places in Between [Rory Stewart] pops to mind. It is interesting how he is treated in different places at different times. He’s welcomed some places. Kids throw rocks at other places. So you can see how people are treated, you can see how locals treat guests and travelers. You see that also in Jason Elliot’s book, An Unexpected Light. How he’s treated and how he struggles through his own ideas — colonial ideas — about how foreigners are treated in Afghanistan. There is a lot of fear and anxiety in his mind that does not play out in his personal experiences and travels.

[JD] You’ve been in a bit of deployment routine, is there a genre of reading you prefer based on your deployments?

[TM] I think so. It is also driven by all the different places I have gone. I’ve worked Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Haiti. I try to do my homework before I go to those places. I try to use travel reading as a way to do my homework.

[JD] How do you find those selections?

[TM] I find them through conversation. I find them through reading bibliographies. I find them through talking about books with other people. When you ask people what they are reading it becomes a back and forth dialogue. I try to ping off those ideas.

[JD] What does your note taking system look like? How do you gather information for your writing?

[TM] It’s a mess and it needs to get better. I have a moleskine with me at all times. I will have several things I am working on at a time so I will write single lines when they come to me. I just wrote a review of the play Dunsinane [Knowing and Not Knowing: The Intangible Nature of War] and I wrote the first draft of that in my moleskine — just pen on paper writing it out.

I also have folders in my Gmail. That’s probably terribly inefficient. I am always sending myself something from twitter. Then I have three or four folders on Gmail for projects that I am working on — things that are just cooking. I am passively collecting things over time.

[JD] Once you have decided there is a particular area that you want to write about or just explore, how do you determine what you are writing about?

[TM] Sometimes I will post a question on twitter. I use twitter as a networking and research platform. I will post a question there. “Has anyone read anything about a topic?” I will go through the blogs I have come across. Sometimes I don’t do research until I have started writing. I hate to quote [Donald] Rumsfeld here, but “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I don’t know until I start to write it out on paper. If there are ideas I am not sure about I will chase down what I am not sure about.

[JD] How do those ideas come out? How do they percolate?

[TM] As I read I take notes. If the book is mine, I will write in the margins. I write in my moleskine because I find that if I write in the margins of a book, I often won’t go back to it. I am constantly writing in my moleskin, ideas I have about articles or blog posts or my book I am writing. I will reference books as I read them, I’ll write a page number down to capture the idea. When I get a couple pages in my moleskine on a specific topic I know I have to sit down and start writing. I am collecting as I go. Once I get enough information, once I have fleshed out enough pieces of it I start writing about it.

[JD] You are also writing fiction. How do those ideas come about? Or is it just experiential?

[TM] That has been an interesting experience that I want to go back to finish. It was my first dabbling in writing fiction. It was difficult for me to be creative after writing just factual or analytical pieces. I found that being creative on that side of writing was difficult, but writing fiction has helped my other writing.

We operate in such a factual world it is hard for me to make things up! This frustrates me with my language learning. In my tests for Dari they ask me to make things up, to tell stories. I can’t just make things up! Either I know it or don’t. Especially in another language, I think that how difficult it is for me to tell a story in Dari is reflective of how difficult is for me to make up stories in real life.

[JD] Is where you write the same for fiction as it is for other genres of writing?

[TM] Exactly. I will try to sit down and just write. The process of keystrokes may just happen once or twice a week. I feel as though I spend my entire week getting ready for the two hours I have set aside to write.

[JD] What bold steps would you like to see the MWG take?

[TM] I think we are guaranteed success. I don’t think we can fail. We are doing what I would do — that is collaborating. It has been really cool to see how this has started with ten guys who decided to sit down and write a charter and put it out there. Now its up to 50 folks. Everyone has new ideas. This has been an interesting experience. I have worked all my life in hierarchical organizations and I think I don’t know anything else. I have started to become really frustrated with rules and guidance very quickly. The Guild has been really refreshing. It is a leaderless organization…a flat lattice. There are networks within the network.

The next bold step is sustainable growth — the integration of editors. To bring in more [members] who are working in the publishing industry. Within the Guild the bold step would be to produce something.

[JD] What is that something?

[TM] I want it to be something that is already in the works by a member — something collaborative or even individual. When we can point back and say, here is a member of the Guild who met an editor or agent or a publisher and has gone from being an aspiring writer to a published writer. That will be the first mark on the wall that shows what the Guild has produced. That will be important.

[JD] What’s the drink of choice?

[TM] Bourbon; it has been neat lately. I am a big fan of Manhattans. I spent two weeks last winter perfecting Old Fashions.

[JD] Two weeks? All waking hours?

[TM] Yes, two weeks. I spent the days sketching out ideas and long winter evenings working on them.

[JD] Thanks Ty. This has been great.

[TM] I’m humbled by your time and interest.