Write Now with Zachary Shore

Who are you?

I’m Zachary Shore, a professor who dwells in two different worlds. I live in Berkeley, a city of progressive academics and vegan activists, where I serve as a Senior Fellow at an institute on campus. But I also teach military officers about strategy and war at a military university in Monterey. And it is like having Fox News and CNN playing simultaneously in your brain. One of the great advantages of this split-screen existence is that in this distressingly polarized time, I get to witness how much our two worlds truly have in common.

I’ve published five books, with a sixth one on the way. Mostly I write about the judgments we make about our enemies. In What Hitler Knew, I explored how Hitler’s judgment was shaped by the advisors around him. In Breeding Bin Ladens, I asked why Europe was failing to understand its Muslim populations. In A Sense of the Enemy, I asked what enabled certain leaders to enter the minds of their enemies, and thereby make better judgments. Currently I’m working on a book about America’s treatment of its enemies during World War II, asking how a minority of officials managed to enact vengeful policies when the majority of leaders and the public favored mercy.

Going through grad school and academia as a blind person, I had to develop time-saving techniques to maximize my efficiency. In Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills, I wanted to give people a witty, accessible, compact guide with practical tips for performing their best. I’m constantly surprised to learn how much that little book impacted the lives of strangers.

I have published only one trade book, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, in order to apply my knowledge of judgment to everyday life. I tried to understand why we often sabotage our own success.

I’ve also been helping others to develop their writing skills. At upwordswriting.com, I describe the services I offer to writers of all kinds, not only book authors, but also graduate students, people applying to grad school, and professionals needing help with cover letters, interview prep, fellowship application essays, and more.

What do you write?

I’ve made a living writing about something very odd: the history of judgment. I’m fixated on a single question: how can we make better decisions to foster peace? Most people who study decision making use the methods of cognitive science or psychology, but I use history. The sciences construct carefully controlled experiments to test how people think, but history allows us to view the decisions that people actually made under real-world conditions.

My subfield is called “applied history,” which tries to draw useful guidance from past experience. And I often focus specifically on one aspect of judgment: how we understand our enemies.

Do I love it? I must, because I can’t stop.

Where do you write?

I write mainly in my head. Once I start to type, it’s on a laptop or a Braille notetaker. I like typing in Braille because it’s more efficient, as there are only six keys plus a spacebar, and the entire system is a kind of short-hand. The word “understanding,” for example, is produced with just five characters.

When do you write?

I’m the worst possible person to ask about discipline. I have none. I never set a word count, fix a span of writing time, or force a deadline if I don’t have one imposed upon me. I write only when inspired. I’m lucky that I often feel inspired.

Many people genuinely benefit from that kind of self-discipline, but that’s not how I roll. First, I have to think; then I can write. If I have no new ideas, then why would I bother sitting down to type? It won’t be any good. That doesn’t mean that every time I do write, it comes out beautifully. Of course not. It’s an ongoing process of rewriting, polishing, and perfecting, and it never gets to perfection. And that’s okay. I enjoy the effort and the incremental improvements. Arbitrary word counts feel false to me. I don’t care if I only write a paragraph, as long as it’s a good one. Sometimes I can’t stop writing. There are moments when it just flows. Those are the times when my best writing occurs, and I’m more likely to generate them when I’m not focused on quantity.

Why do you write?

I write for two reasons: to share ideas with others and to change the way we think. When someone tells me that something I wrote actually changed their mind about a subject, or touched them in some way, it’s one of the most gratifying feelings. I’ve had strangers email me from countries around the world, such as China, India, parts of Europe, and beyond, where I never expected that anyone would read my work. I’m not a best-selling author; I’m just an academic who tries to reach a wider audience. But now and then I’m surprised to hear from people in random places, from so many different backgrounds, who came upon one of my books and felt moved to tell me how it touched them. Publishing a book always feels to me like sending a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea. I’m forever amazed to discover who finds it.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

As I said, I write mainly in my head. I never sit down at the computer to stare at a blank screen. When I’m lying in bed, out for a walk, in the shower, making dinner, or just sitting down to think, I’m writing. I do both macro and micro-level writing in there. I’m asking what precisely is the question I want to answer. How should it be structured, framed, and expressed? And I’m constructing sentences, moving them around, listening to how they sound in my mind’s ear. I never start to type without first having a clear sense of what I want to say. Obviously, the typing time is when I’m putting flesh on the bone, developing my ideas, and further crafting my sentences. But much of the initial hard work of writing happens well before I sit down to type.

Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?

I love frisbee, which might seem like a strange thing for a blind person to say. I grew up sighted and played Ultimate almost every day after school. After I lost my sight, I could not play Ultimate, but I never stopped tossing the disc around with friends. If someone claps, I can zero in on the sound and throw the disc right to them. Over time, I developed surprisingly good aim and distance. I also love kayaking, ice skating, and have a kryptonite weakness for Haagen-Dazs.

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