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"Every column is a failure," David Brooks says.
Chip Cutter

Managing editor at LinkedIn

David Brooks describes his approach to writing columns: crawling on the floor, 'like a form of prayer'

Jul 4, 2016

ASPEN — Even with all the turmoil in media, a gig as an op-ed columnist at The New York Times remains one of the most prestigious in the business.

So when David Brooks took the stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival for a session entitled, "Jobs as a Vocation: Finding Meaning in Our Work," I grabbed a seat, expecting to hear the conservative writer talk fondly about his column and its contributions to his life. 

Instead, he ragged on it.

“It’s perpetually unsatisfying," he said. "You always have to think of the next thing. I used to have all sorts of needs for food, water, sex. Now I just have needs for column ideas.”

He recounted the story of his hiring by the Times in 2003, joking that he had a "failure of courage" to turn the job down, as he initially planned. At the time, he was a successful magazine writer, working for outlets like The Atlantic, Newsweek and the Weekly Standard. He worried about his ability to turn out weekly 800-word columns.

“My best length is 3,000 words,” he said. “I hate writing 800 words.”   

Of course, this was a discussion on finding satisfaction in work — a talk between Brooks and Arthur Brooks (no relation), the president of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, on achieving happiness "because of our work and not in spite of it." (You can watch a full video of the talk here.)

So when is Brooks happiest? The most meaningful moments of the job, he said, come while putting the column together. For every piece he writes — he's published more than 1,600 at this point — he follows a similar process, one I found interesting.

He receives about 200 pages of research. He writes notes all over them. Then he puts everything on the floor. He starts crawling around, organizing the papers into stacks: one for each paragraph of his piece. A single column might be based on 14 piles of papers.

"The process of writing is not the process of typing on the keyboard; it’s the process of crawling around on my carpet, organizing my piles," he said. "There are moments when ideas are flowing and I'm making connections and the structure’s falling into place and I’m crawling around moving the papers into the piles that are just the best moments of my job. And it’s like a form of prayer almost. Things are just happening."

He said he has four aims with his column: to be respectful; to advance a Whig political ideology; to occasionally push the conversation beyond politics to philosophy and spirituality; and to write well. 

That's not to say he's satisfied. He says he looks back on his longer work, the stories he spent months pursuing, and feels as if he had done his best.  

"I never have that with a column," he said. "Every column is a failure."

Read more coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival on LinkedIn here.