What I’m working on:
At the moment, most of my time and energy is dedicated to the book I’m writing, which explores the many ways that life has transformed Earth throughout its history, making it into the world as we’ve known it. So far, the reporting has taken me to a remote research station in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, an experimental nature reserve in Siberia, and a former gold mine turned scientific laboratory nearly a mile below the surface of the planet. I’ve also swum through kelp forests, observed controlled burns in congested woodlands, and explored a hidden universe of soil microfauna in my own backyard. In addition to the book, I continue to write features and essays for The New York Times Magazine and other publications.
Where I work:
I work from my home in Portland, Oregon, where I live with my partner Ryan, our six-year-old Brittany spaniel Jack, and more plants than we can count. For most of my freelance career, I did not have an office, so I primarily worked on the couch and coffee table. That changed a couple years ago when Ryan and I bought our current house. We turned one of the rooms into an office, which has been especially useful for interviews, online meetings, and intensive reading and writing. Ryan and I share a passion for natural history, and the office has also become a place to store and display rocks, fossils, shells, pine cones, and assorted keepsakes, as well as somewhere to hang scientific illustrations we’ve collected over the years. The office window faces an alley between our house and our neighbor’s, which is bright and open in early spring and heavily shaded by maple trees in summer and early fall. I’m slowly adding more flowering plants to that area, such as crocuses, daffodils, and snowdrops for spring blooms, as well as hydrangeas and fuchsias for late season color. Hummingbirds, jays, wrens, squirrels, and bumblebees visit frequently.
On a typical day I’m up by 8:00 a.m., although it could be considerably earlier if I have an interview or conference with someone in a different time zone. I almost always begin the day by walking through the neighborhood with Jack. What happens next depends on the time of year, my workload, and my current priorities. If it’s a relatively relaxed work week, I might spend the next few hours exercising, having breakfast, checking on the garden, and answering emails. If I’m facing an imminent deadline or juggling several especially demanding projects, I might skip the more leisurely morning activities and begin working right away. I usually continue working from lunch to dinner, punctuated by walks with Jack and, if the weather is good and I have the time, a little gardening. I sometimes continue researching or writing after dinner, but I prefer to reserve most of the evening for entertainment and socializing.
Most productive part of my day:
Either early morning or late afternoon, depending on the day.
Most essential ritual or habit:
Walking. I walk through my neighborhood with Jack at least three or four times a day. I firmly believe in the power of walking to improve one’s mood and health, replenish mental resources, and stimulate creativity and insight. When I step away from my desk and computer and explore my physical environment, especially in a green space, my mind is able to navigate mental landscapes that were previously inaccessible. Sometimes, when I’m feeling stuck, even a brief stroll through the garden, or simply moving from one room to another, can shift my mental state and reveal a much-needed solution or an alternate perspective.
Gardening is a close second. For the past two years, Ryan and I have been creating a garden from scratch. I find that having a creative, tactile and nurturing outdoor hobby that literally requires getting one’s hands dirty is an excellent and enlightening contrast to the more cerebral and often abstract indoor work of synthesizing texts and translating thought into written sentences.
Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:
For field reporting, I’ve come to love Rite in the Rain and similar all-weather notebooks. I record audio with a small Sony voice recorder that I wear around my neck, and I take photos with my iPhone and a compact Panasonic digital camera with an impressive zoom (which is especially useful for getting clear photos of distant wildlife without lugging around much-more-cumbersome equipment). When I’m reading and taking notes, it’s usually in MS Word, or, if I’m traveling without my laptop, in a notebook or on my phone. At home, I’ve learned to keep small notepads on my bedside table and in various rooms for those unexpected moments when a new idea, sentence, or solution appears in my mind like a reverse Polaroid, threatening to disappear entirely if I don’t preserve it quickly enough.
How I keep track of my to-do list:
I keep numerous to-do lists and schedules just about everywhere: on TextEdit documents on my desktop, on the Notes app on my iPhone, in emails to myself, and on scraps of paper around the house.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
I’m fairly old-school when it comes to software. Most days I don’t rely on anything more sophisticated than Word or Google Docs. When I’m working on a project, I create a series of Word documents with notes from my research and interviews and organize them in folders as I go. Eventually each project comprises dozens of curated folders and subfolders containing the photos, audio recordings, research papers, notes, etc., that are relevant to that project. I like to compose drafts in Google Docs and export them later on, in part because Google automatically saves them. (In addition to routinely backing up my laptop on an external hard drive, I frequently email myself recent desktop documents as a fail-safe.) I’ve briefly experimented with software programs like Scrivener for long-term projects but have not committed to them. Although I have little doubt I would benefit from such programs if I really put in the time and work to master them, so far I have not found them to be necessary. I like to have complete manual and admittedly idiosyncratic control of the information I’m gathering, the text I’m crafting, and how I organize them.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
In the virtual world, Twitter and Slack. Around the house, I default to cleaning, organizing, gardening, and baking.
My reading habits:
I spend the greater part of most days researching my current project by reading books, scientific studies, government reports, archives, and other texts. In the evening, I like to read fiction, especially in the form of audiobooks; after a long day of visually scrutinizing often dry and arcane texts, it’s nice to experience a good story through a different sensory channel. Lately I’ve enjoyed novels and short stories by Richard Powers, George Saunders, Sally Rooney, Ted Chiang, César Aira, Shirley Jackson, Raven Leilani, Iain Reid, Megan Nolan, Charles Portis, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Ideally, I’m asleep by midnight and awake by 8:00 a.m. In practice, it varies a lot depending on my work schedule and travel.