The Creative Process

The Creative Process

Mark Safranski

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 11, 2010

I met Mark Safranski last year, just after launching “It’s the Tribes, Stupid.” Soon after the videos launched, he wrote a post for his blog “Zenpundit.”  Though he didn’t agree with everything I said, he showed respect for the effort. That’s one sign of a professional. He might not always agree with you, but he’ll respect the effort, and avoid personal attacks. In addition to setting a high standard for blogging at ZenPundit, Mark holds an MA in diplomatic history and an MS.Ed in administration, is a teacher, educational consultant and was an adviser to a privately held internet platform company, Conversationbase, LLC.  He was the editor of The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War, and a contributing author to Threats in the Age of Obama , published by Nimble Books. Zenpundit has been favorably cited byWIRED magazine, The Office of the Secretary of Defense, by bestselling author Thomas P.M. Barnett in his most recent books, Blueprint for Action and Great Powers, and has had articles appearing in HNN, Small Wars Journal , Pajamas Media, at The Atlantic Council and at numerous blogs across the political spectrum. He also is the father of two, and lives with his wife Lisa in the Chicago area.

SP: You and I met after I launched the “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” videos. Though the feedback tended to run to different extremes—love ’em or hate ’em—you were balanced. You shared what you didn’t like, but also shared what you did like. And your other posts follow suit. In the blogosphere, especially in the political category, where emotions run hot then cold before you can blink, how do you remain calm? How do you remain the professional, who keeps criticisms from becoming personal attacks?

MS: Steve, you are right that the blogosphere is far too polarized along political lines and when contentious issues are in play, there’s almost an assumption or atmosphere of partisan ill-will that is unhealthy, humorless and unpleasant. It’s something I was guilty of myself at times in pre-blogging days and I eventually came around to the conclusion that’s not a dynamic I want to perpetuate. Strong convictions and coherent arguments do not require anger or abusive language to be effectively expressed.

When a commenter or another blogger in a debate is coming across as hostile or angry, I have a choice: I can try to score cheap debating points of my own and vent my spleen at their expense, or I can continue to treat them with respect, de-escalate the situation and calmly pursue my points or ask questions. While the first option feels good in the heat of the moment, very seldom will anything be resolved or accomplished. If the goal here is persuasion or a meeting of the minds, engagement has to be constructive. Most people respond positively to being treated fairly and will usually lower the volume. Those very few that can’t are why keyboards come with a “DELETE” button. There’s no need to own someone else’s frustration and anger, life is too short.

Another point I try to consider is that I might very well be wrong on the substance of the matter and the other guy could be right, even if he’s behaving like an ass. One of my mentors was an old, crusty, social democratic, diplomatic historian named Carl Parrini. He used to caution his grad students, most of whom were on the Left, not to just read authors who made them feel good because their writings reinforced their preconceived opinions and would not make them think. Accolades, agreement and praise lull us to sleep. Our critics wake us up, point out our shortcomings and force us to defend what we assert to be true. Over the years, I’ve found that it was very sage advice and I’ve tried to pass that on to my own students.

SP: “ZenPundit” is a great name for a blog. How did you come up with it? And does the Zen have anything to do with the balance mentioned in my first question?

MS: Thanks! Getting into blogging was a transition from participating on moderated e-mail Listservs and scholarly boards like H-Net. While I learned a great deal from the participants there, the format in terms of subject matter permitted for posts then was pretty narrow. This was 2003 and “blogging” had yet to go mainstream, but the idea of being able to write more freely was appealing. In retrospect, I’m not sure why this was because my initial efforts at blogging were awful, which was reflected in my traffic stats for at least the first year or so until I learned from trial and error and the examples of others.

One of those inspirations was Geitner Simmons, now the editorial page editor of The Omaha-World Herald. Simmons had a very classy and well-respected blog then, called “Regions of Mind” and he was quite generous with his time in interacting with me. Geitner’s posts were always extremely polished and flowed gracefully, something I have tried to emulate, not always successfully. Writing is a lot like playing the piano; some of us can learn to hit the keys correctly, while others like yourself and Simmons are the musicians.

One thing I did get right was the name. I realized dimly that it would be useful to have some kind of a “hook” to brand myself and starting blogging coincided with a deepening interest in Zen meditation and philosophy. I was reading a lot of zen koans, which are usually presented as paradoxical statements intended to generate intuitive insights rather than be solved as linear problems. This connection or interdependence of opposites was very appealing as a theme, so I christened the blog “ZenPundit.”

In terms of writing individual posts, the connection to Zen is less direct. Originally, I was educated as a historian. As you know yourself Steve, as a field, history has a certain methodology for the evaluation and presentation of evidence and the construction of an argument. While I don’t limit myself in approaching subjects the way a professional historian would, the need to present information in an accurate context has stuck with me. That entails balance and an effort to maintain some degree of analytical objectivity.

SP: Mark, what is the ZenPundit philosophy? How do you decide which stories or posts (or even guest bloggers) you want to include? What criteria do you use?

MS: Good question. My philosophy is something I also try to impart in my teaching.

Marcus Aurelius said “Look beneath the surface; let not the several qualities of a thing nor its worth escape you.” Most phenomena have many dimensions, multiple causes and second and third order effects. To deal with all of this complexity, we simplify matters by looking at life through an organizing frame, which we might call a worldview, a schema, a paradigm or a discipline. Whatever we call our mental model, we tend to become wedded to it because it “works.” It helps us understand some of what we are looking at—and in getting good at applying our model, advances us professionally and brings prestige or material rewards. So we will defend it to the death, from all challengers!

That’s the getting carried away. Our mental model is just a tool or, more precisely, a cognitive lens. We need to be less attached to our habitual and lazy ways of looking at the world, put down our magnifying glass and pick up a telescope. Or, bifocals. Or, a microscope. Stepping back and applying different perspectives to a problem or an issue will give us new information, help us extrapolate, identify unintended consequences or spot connections and opportunities. When I do analytical pieces, I try to take that approach.

I wish I could tell you that I had a well thought out, methodical, criteria for selecting topics on which to post. I should, but I don’t. Some of my most influential posts were written on the spur of the moment—I think you would say, in the spirit of your The War of Art, when the “Muse” grabbed me and “Resistance” evaporated—while some very carefully researched and laboriously written posts sank into well-deserved obscurity (insert your maxim “Nobody wants to read your shit” here). One thing I can say is that I will abruptly change topics if there’s been too much of one subject recently. I could never do an “all COIN” or “all History” monothematic type of blog. That would bore me and the readers as well.

Guest-blogging is an interesting subject. Solo blogs are on the decline because the ability of one person to generate sufficient velocity of content in their spare time is limited. I have worked with many excellent bloggers on specific projects, like the Xenophon Roundtable, in which you participated, but the gentleman who has become my established “guest blogger” at “ZenPundit” is Charles Cameron. Cameron brings to the table a depth of knowledge on cross-cultural theology and religious politics that is simply staggering. Most guest bloggers are brought on because they echo the host. This is a mistake. A good guest-blogger or co-blogger is invited aboard because they expand the reach of the blog or strengthen its credibility. Charles does that for “ZenPundit” just as Mac McCallister’s expertise has enriched your site.

SP: Where do your ideas come from—for your blog and your other work?

MS: I have noticed, Steve, that in your series of interviews with bloggers, creativity is an important theme for you. I agree. Our society and our educational system undervalue and fail to maximize the creative potential of our population and as a result, America is a poorer and less innovative nation than if we gave more weight to adaptive thinking and creativity and less to memorization and passively following orders.

Creativity has a number of wellsprings. First, you need a sufficiently large “cognitive map”—i.e. you need to know a lot of stuff, experiential and theoretical. That means heavy-duty reading and also a willingness to go out and test oneself in new activities, fall on your face and accept the lessons learned. From that, you get a body of knowledge with which you can work. Mental “clay” with which to sculpt ideas. The more diverse your sources of information, the better. Our brain is like a savings account—we should make more deposits than withdrawals.

Secondly, you have to actively make an effort to think differently. “Lateral” or “horizontal” thinking is when you try to draw analogies across disparate fields. Metaphors are similarly important; a poet catches a different nuance of truth than does a physicist or a philosopher. If you normally think in terms of words or numbers, imaginatively try to frame your concepts as an image, then contemplate its’ opposite. These are techniques for generating moments of insight—the Archimedean “Eureka” experience.

Thirdly, get away from the problem and do something completely different. My best ideas generally do not happen when I am researching or typing away at the computer. They tend to pop into my head when I am lifting weights, doing chores, walking the dog—something physical. Concepts tend to crystallize for me when I’ve had some time to digest a problem and then, frequently, a light seems to go on in my brain that captures what I had hoped to articulate.

SP:How do you view your relationship with your audience? Did they find you or did you find them? When you craft each day’s post, are you following only your own passions and interests or do you have a sense of your viewership and are you trying to aid/influence/entertain/educate them?

MS: There’s definitely a very strong feedback loop between myself and the readers—something I think that holds true for most bloggers. My readers come from a political cross section that is center-right, but with a sizable liberal-to-progressive minority; Anglo-Americans predominate, but again, there’s a considerable plurality who are European with a sprinkling of regular readers from India, Latin America and the Pacific Rim. What these very different people tend to have in common is an interest in the evolution of important national security issues, especially military affairs, at the level of strategic policy. While I am usually the one driving the initial discussion with my post, many of the “regulars” will bring their own expertise to bear in the comments section and I can sit back and watch wonderfully informative yet civil debates unfold. Or they will email me with suggestions of articles and books that I should read. I often end up blogging about them.

This kind of give-and-take is very valuable. Nick Carr, the internet/technology pundit, likes to argue that the internet is making us all dumber. All I can say to that is Carr must not be building the sort of relationships with his readers that I have enjoyed with mine. I can honestly say that many of the individuals I have interacted with through blogging have made me smarter by shaping my views or giving me opportunities to engage with them.

A comprehensive list of my readers’ contributions to “ZenPundit” would be very difficult to compile, but by way of examples, Dr. Thomas Barnett, John Robb and Dr. Chet Richards have influenced and broadened my understanding of strategy and strategic thinking. W.F. Zimmerman of Nimble Books, Dave Dilegge of Small Wars Journal and fellow writers Michael Tanji and Bruce Kesler opened doors to publishing my writing or acted as collaborators, as has Adam Elkus. Critt Jarvis and Sean Meade have been social connectors, sources of advice on tech aspects of blogging and, in Sean’s case, gentle corrector of my poor use of grammar. Dave Schuler, Shane Deichman, Tom Wade, Dr. Mark Vondracek, Shlok Vaidya, Nate Lauterbach, Dr. Dan Abbott, Eddie Beaver, the gents at Coming Anarchy and, above all, Michael Lotus, have been important and astute intellectual catalysts for me. Then there are readers like Morgan, who seldom appears in the comments, but who frequently sends me links and draws my attention toward emerging news stories.

Whatever I have given my readers, I have gotten back tenfold—and for that I am grateful!

SP: In addition to blogging, you are a teacher, an educational consultant, and a father. How do you maintain balance? And if you find you are spending too much time in one direction, how do you swing back to center?

MS: Ah, that’s a neat trick, which I have yet to master. My children are of an age now where their soccer, basketball and baseball games are starting to mold our monthly schedule, and I have gone with that flow, as this is time with them that will never come back. I’m also fairly disciplined with my time at work and what I need to do on a given day there in the classroom or in meetings is fairly predictable so long as I appropriately allocate my time and prioritize the tasks.

Blogging fits in at the margins, often very late at night when the house is quiet, so I tend to sacrifice sleep in order to write. While I can get by on relatively little sleep compared to most people, if I start feeling burned out and unfocused, or I am waking up irritable, it is time to ease off and adjust my schedule. I might take a few days off from the blog or postpone non-urgent paperwork. My wife, Lisa, would like to see that happen more often, and has joked about being a “blogwidow.” On the other hand, it was Lisa who designed my site when I left Blogger, pushed me to get rid of all the internet clutter in the blog margin, and gave “ZenPundit” a clean and professional appearance. Her interest in blogging, though, is primarily technical.

SP: In addition to all your other family, work and blogging activities, you’re also pursuing an advanced degree. Where do you see yourself five years from now? What will you be doing?

MS: Fortunately, I finished my second Master’s degree last December which I pursued to give me some greater job mobility and flexibility. Most of my experience has been in teaching early adolescents and conducting workshops with adult professionals, so I would like to branch out and begin teaching undergraduates as an adjunct sometime in the next year. Educators should really stretch themselves at least once every seven years or so, by undertaking a different age cohort of student in the classroom or get out of from behind the lectern and take a turn as a student themselves. Learn something new, acquire different skill-sets and disciplinary expertise and bring that back to improve their teaching.

In five years, policy writing will take up a greater percentage of my professional time than now, and if I am having a positive impact and inspiring readers and students, I will count that as a marker of success.

Posted in The Creative Process

7 Responses to “Mark Safranski”

  1. June 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Excellent interview. It is always inspirational to read about the process that other bloggers go through, and how that process is rewarding to them. I would even say that to some of us, the process is therapeutic. It also helps to have a passion about the subject(s) and a desire to constantly post and interact with your readership.

    Which brings me to the one thing that Mark mentioned about the Nick Carr quote, that I agree with 100%. The constant interaction with my readership, and a constant desire to feed that readership with unique and inspiring content, certainly increases my understanding of the subjects I am so passionate about. It is the give and take, the teaching and learning, the analysis and synthesis of the whole thing, and a constant dedication to continuously improving that process which gives the blogger such an incredible learning experience. Plus it is fun to connect with the world in such a way.
    Take care, and thanks for sharing.-matt

  2. Brandon Beachum
    August 10, 2011 at 1:37 am

    as an amateur student of philosophy with a high chance of becoming a philosophy professor some day, and with only a little college under my belt, mostly versed in plato and just a little decartes and hume, i am thoroughly impressed by mark. i am also very proud to call him my cousin, especially after reading this! balance and diversity are crucial to getting to the truth of anything, and he certainly has an abundance of both.

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