Unleash Your Inner Voice
The Voice of the Military Writers Guild on writing about what he doesn’t yet know
Adin Dobkin is restless. It appears as though there is a checklist of “to-do's” reflecting off his mind’s eye stealing his attention. Put a cold beer in his hand and you can get him to slow down long enough for him to tell you what’s on his mind (he prefers sour beers in the summer). I had been communicating with the “Voice of the Guild” virtually for months by the time I caught up with him long enough for a chat over cold beers on a warm summer night in northern Virginia.
It is no small wonder Adin chairs the communications committee of the Military Writers Guild. He is a curator of our social media platforms, author of our newsletter, and webmaster of a soon to be relaunched webpage. Adin has been called a press secretary, government affairs coordinator, writer, and analyst. Through each of those titles is the common thread — communicator. He’s also been working as a communications strategist for a Global Impact Project we are organizing with the Guild and its growing network. For that, I owe him more than one beer.
[John DeRosa] What time do you typically wake up? What does the first hour of your day look like?
[Adin Dobkin] I normally try to get up between 5:45 and 6:00 AM on work days. Four out of five times, I will immediately go to the gym. During that first hour in-between working out I try to absorb “evergreen information” — not the normal news articles but information that has a longer shelf life than the headlines. That means a constantly rotating quiver of podcasts I typically listen to between the gym and before I head off to work. I will also always have Twitter, Gmail, and Feedly open in my browser.
My job on a day-to-day basis varies entirely. I will be consumed with that from about 9:00 AM to 6:00 or 7:00 PM. Then I typically make a point of cooking 6–7 days out of the week. Besides that I don’t think I have any other rituals.
[JD] Do you have a writing ritual?
[AD] This year I am attempting to complete the “holy trinity” of academic, popular non-fiction, and fiction pieces. For each of those it is going to be entirely different. Typically I am the kind of person that really needs an outline to effectively write academic or non-fiction pieces. So I will get a baseline understanding of a topic from a host of sources then I will outline to as complete an extent as possible. For my other writing, for example, my recently started a fiction project from Scotland, it’s entirely free-form. My writing benefited from that travel and the free-form element.
[JD] Is there anything you do to get you into a creative mode?
[AD] Besides beer? Not particularly. With all my pieces, it requires a source of inspiration. I have never felt compelled to get a piece out. My Google Drive account has somewhere between twenty to fifty documents with anywhere from a paragraph to a page completed. I never finished these documents because either didn’t feel the inspiration or what I was responding to initially I no longer feel applicable. It is an entirely driven process that depends on my mood with that general underlying inspiration.
[JD] How you determine what you are writing about?
[AD] In terms of coming up with pieces it really varies. Generally it starts with something from the news. Most of my writing does utilize an underlying philosophy or lens that I use which is the human element. Looking at things from the human perspective: how we are, what we do, etc. It shapes not only how I write about things or what I write about but the entire writing process itself.
[JD] It’s not anger blogging?
[AD] No, I really try to avoid anger blogging. I don’t think I ever have. If I have it’s probably one of those incomplete pieces on my drive. My writing process is long enough that those types of pieces languish and are forgotten.
[JD] Is there a typical writing space that you find yourself in?
[AD] At home my go-to computer is a desktop, so I’m normally pretty confined when I’m using that, which is where I typically will hammer out pieces. Having said that, for my fiction piece I’ve tried to draft it entirely by hand. Basically, it was because I didn’t have my computer on my trip to Scotland. For my job when I’m writing speeches or op-eds, I will take my notepad and favorite pen and go out into the waiting area or somewhere without distractions. I find that if I sit at my desk I will constantly be bombarded with information. I am not sure if that is a personal thing for me, or whether there’s some universal there, but I know it entirely changes things for me.
[JD] When bit with this passion, what does your note taking system look like? How do you gather information for your writing?
[AD] In terms of gathering information, I try to take a holistic approach not only in terms of source type but also a viewpoint. I consider myself more of a generalist than an expert in one particular subset of national security, although my background has generally been in the legislative side of things. I also think that we use “expert” pretty liberally in DC.
Let me put it like this, when I was first on the Hill, I listened to David Brooks just before he released one of his books. He said he doesn’t write about what he knows but about what he wants to know. I’d like to think I try to apply that to my own writing. I do like to look at things from a novel angle and from my individual lens which I think is pretty unique. Yet I am honest in my limitations and will try to always note what things I am unsure about or don’t know. I try to ask as many questions of my readers as I answer. There’s hopefully a dialogue there.
So getting back to your original question, my information comes from a variety of sources. I am a big fan of long-form journalism as kind of a way to get the human angle in. I am a fairly voracious reader so I will also include what books I have in my library on a subject. I also don’t shy away from academic sources.
For my note taking, I have one Evernote account, one Google Drive accounts, three Moleskins a digital recorder and a Dropbox. If anyone has a better system, please get in touch with me!
Depending on the subject, I will write down the notes in Moleskines. I will keep an agenda so the note doesn’t get looked at just once. In terms of larger projects, I will create a Google Drive folder because it is an easy way to collect everything — PDFs, Word documents — in one place.
[JD] For the writing that found a conclusion on a blog, a journal article, or in a speech, how did you choose that topic?
[AD] It goes back to that underlying philosophy I think every single time. Combined with that desire to know something. There are generally a few fields that I go back to when I’m interested in talking about something: national security, the military, etc. Although my job on the Hill is not just in that area. From there, I expand to other fields that might touch those areas, even just barely. Beyond that, I don’t try to limit myself. As long as I can work in that angle and do so in an educated way.
[JD] What are you reading lately?
[AD] I just finished two books on my trip. One, the Southern Reach trilogy. It is a bit of a mystery and science fiction work. It does an excellent job of looking at internal levels of doubt and internal dialogues between sanity and insanity. The other was The Strategist, which is a biography of Brent Scowcroft I enjoyed as well. Typically, if I don’t have too much outside work, try to read a book or two a week. So I don’t nail myself to one genre. Next on my list is a biography of Henry Clay and The Long Shadow a legacy of World War I. I don’t try for one genre, typically it is whatever appeals to me.
I also don’t have a great recommendation system. I just made a Goodreads account, so my personal jury is still out on that one. I tend to look at annual lists rather than NY Review of books because I buy in batches. If there are recommendations from friends, I will also read those.
[JD] Is there a genre of reading you prefer?
[AD] I make a point of alternating between fiction and non-fiction. In terms of fiction, it is generally what I think is good writing. In college I thought I was going to be an English major so I do appreciate quality writing. For that reason bestseller lists are not typically where I am looking. For non-fiction, it is typically national security but I would hesitate to say that I pigeonhole myself in that regard.
[JD] What is the book you’re most likely to give as a gift or one you’ve given as a gift the most?
[AD] It would vary depending on the person. I’ll give three examples that would probably span the breadth of my gift-giving. In terms of great writing, Gerard Manley Hopkins is up there. I would give a collection of his poems. If it’s a non-fiction type of person, I’d give Days of Fire by Peter Baker, a really fantastic account of the Bush years. It goes beyond the typical rhetoric you see in the media and looks at the human relationship between Bush and Cheney. On the fiction side, I really enjoy The Secret History by Donna Tart, which is a story about a murder in a boarding school.
[JD] Where’s the most adventurous place(s) you have been?
[AD] I am not one of those interesting people in the Guild in this regard. I have driven down to Mexico, which is probably more adventurous than my other trips if you don’t count base-level distance as measure of adventure. It wasn’t during best time in the country which I suppose boosts the adventure factor, but it was an incredible experience in general.
[JD] What’s your drink of choice?
[AD] If I am writing, a Negroni; if I am editing, a good beer.
[JD] What’s a good beer?
[AD] That’s a hard question to answer. There are some that I go back to, but it all depends on the season. During the summer, I enjoy sour beers and during the winter I will go with something heavier. Ale Smith makes a good stout I also enjoy Stone Russian Imperial. I am gradually weaning myself of west coast beers and onto east coast beers.
One of the nice things about Europe is they make more balanced beers than the States. We typically go to one extreme or another. Having good, solid, well-balanced beer is a nice change. I had Avalanche by a local brewery on the Isle of Skye that was great, as well as a few others. They also do casks quite a bit more, which was also a nice change of pace.
[JD] What bold steps would you like to see the MWG take?
[AD] I think a lot of the bold steps are organically forming on a small group level. Because of my position on the communications committee, I find myself in just about every conversation regarding administration or projects in the Guild. I think we have three or four right now that span the fiction and non-fiction breadth and everywhere in between. So I think the bold steps are occurring there. The bold, or at least important, step the guild itself needs to take is hammering out the administrative aspects so that those bold things can happen and happen with an audience. I’m also onboard for the alternative QDR that will be outsourced to the guild.