Mike Long Transcript

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: And our guest today is Michael Long who is an award-winning writer and educator. In addition to his numerous courses and seminars at Georgetown University and around the world, Michael’s writing has covered the gamut. His book, The Molecule of More, which he co-authored with Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD has been called an “epic saga of dopamine as a page turner.” He’s written speeches for governors and cabinet secretaries, business leaders, and presidential candidates. His one-act plays Color Timer and The Gettier Problem won awards at the Neil LaBute New Theater Festival. [00:01:00] One of his screenplays, The Joby Project, was a winner of the Rocaberti Scholarship for Screenwriting. Welcome, Mike.

Mike Long: Thank you!

Michael: So, we have a couple of questions that we like to start our interviews with, and the first one is this: In what aspects of your life would you say creativity has had the greatest impact?

Mike Long: Getting here at all. I, I was raised in the rural south in in the 1960s and 70s and—first, by the way, it’s great that you all are here. I’m glad to get to talk to you. But the thing about being raised there in that time is that you’re not exposed to a lot of possibilities beyond what you see. Now, that’s true wherever you are, but there are only a few things that people do in that part of the country at that time. You’d be a farmer, you might be a shopkeeper, maybe—I had an uncle who was an engineer and that was about all. I didn’t, and so I would see things [00:02:00] on television—of course, that was so exciting to see people on TV doing crazy things. And you get some ideas there, but you think, “That’s not for me.” I, how do you even do such a thing?  I remember watching game shows—and we were talking earlier, you and I, about some things about game shows—and they would be in New York and they’d they would say, “Oh, I’m on Broadway this week doing such and such.” And I thought, “Maybe someday I’ll get to see New York. I’ll get to see it.” So I think that the first place creativity rears its head is the creative idea that there could be something else.

Elizabeth: I, as we were discussing, I grew up in a small town in Texas.

Mike Long: Yes.

Elizabeth: I used to stay up late at night watching the Dick Cavett and David Frost shows. That was my internet. I can relate to watching people in these lofty New York professions.

Mike Long: And this is not to say that was a bad place to grow up. Far from it! It was a wonderful place to grow up. People grow up across the bridge, over in Brooklyn, in [00:03:00] in New York state, and dream of going to Manhattan. So it really, it’s really about what else is possible that I haven’t seen. And I’d say I’m better for having grown up there because of the things that I saw that don’t always make it out of there, as Elizabeth—those are some of the things that inform what I do now.

So creativity is more than just, I’ve made up a cute story, as I think anybody listening to this podcast knows. But it’s important to remember that creativity informs how you conduct your life.

Michael: It’s your own life story that creativity has created beyond your, wildest imaginations—

Mike Long: Sure.

Michael: —when you were growing up.

Mike Long: Sure. You, creativity is—I can talk a lot about creativity and we can never get past this question. In the book Molecule of More we talk about it. It’s about dopamine. And a lot of people think, and I know that this may be where you go, “I’ll skip this part.” Don’t skip this part. This is actually fun. We think of dopamine usually as the molecule of pleasure, but that’s not right. It doesn’t give us a hit of excitement because of pleasure. It gives us a hit of excitement because there’s something [00:04:00] unknown. The, that we are desirous of more. And so this—

Michael: Hence the title.

Mike Long: Hence the title! Yes. And so creativity is in, if we pull that thread, creativity is connecting things that have not been connected before. You think about—I love The Beach Boys, and you listen, and you say, why is Pet Sounds so valuable? Why is it so unusual? Why is “Good Vibrations,” which is not on Pet Sounds, but why is “Good Vibrations” so interesting? It’s because it connects things that have never, had never been connected before. There’s a theremin in the thing for Pete’s sake. To that point, it had been used as a sound effects device in horror movies. That song is presented in three movements, like a classical piece.

Elizabeth: Interesting. This is The Beach Boys we’re talking about?

Mike Long: This is The Beach Boys. This is Brian Wilson. And so we, when we talk about creativity, what we’re really talking about is nothing more than the connecting of things that have not previously been connected.

Michael: That actually connects to your second, our second question.

Elizabeth: Well, yes, indeed. [00:05:00] Because we’ve been asking a lot of our interviewees how they understand creativity itself. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books on creativity, which I’m sure you know, like Flow and Creativity, the focus is on acts that advance a particular field of endeavor like engineering or chess or comedy or playwriting. Conversely, in his book, Human Motivation, Robert Franken focuses on creativity in relationship to problem solving and communication. So just go a little deeper into how you personally view creativity or the creative act.

Mike Long: First, let me make it clear, I’m not familiar with those books. I’m not familiar with those names. I am not particularly well-read. But I’ve embraced that, number one, because what else you gonna do? “Get educated!” a listener just said, I’m sure. But I find it, I find certain kinds of ignorance kind of an opportunity because my first instinct is not to “Let’s find out what an expert said about this.” My first instinct is, “Can you figure it out?” And I like to see where that leads me. And a lot of [00:06:00] times, if you’re a careful, critical thinker you’ll end up at the right place. And if you end up at another place that’s not where someone’s been before, you’re going to see it in a new way. So let me just say that right away.

As for how I see creativity, I think the most useful way to think about creativity is not in its application, but in its source. And that’s why we’ve already been talking about, or I’ve been talking, you’ve been kind enough to listen, the neuro, the neuroscientific basis of it. Because we are just wet machines. So we can, if we talk about how we apply creativity, we’ve skipped over the, the foundation of it, which is what is its source. And its source is, among other neurotransmitters, dopamine. Which is in this case, it’s a, it’s an evolutionary artifact driving us to something new and unknown in order to help us survive.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Michael: So we, another thing we like to explore early on is early experiences of creativity. You’ve already mentioned growing up in Alabama—

Mike Long: No, in southeast Missouri, but yeah.

Michael: [00:07:00] Southeast Missouri.

Mike Long: Close. Close enough.

Michael: Close enough.

Mike Long: Who’s counting right? Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: Hi!

Michael: Alright, Missouri. Okay. And so what are, what were your, some of your—if you could share some of your early experiences of creativity, either as a witness or as a participant.

Mike Long: When I was a little boy in grade school, I used to write plays for my friends to put on. I’m sure you’ve heard other creative types say that and I really am hesitant to say “other creative types.” I, boy, I don’t like the way that feels at all. I just do things that are amusing to me. That’s what I do. So I would write plays for my friends. And they would put them on at school. The teacher would let us put them on.

And then I wrote one for the television program, Zoom, not the platform, but the television show, Zoom, when I was, I don’t know, 10 years old, something like that. And it was on public television. And in those days, there wasn’t cable. And somebody had to hold the back of the TV and hold your arm up and be in a human aerial to pick this thing up. And I could barely see it through the fuzzy screen, but I saw it. So those were things that, that I did.

I remember when I was [00:08:00] about 12, maybe not quite 12, we used to get this—you all remember this, I’m a little older than you all, I think, but still, you’ll probably remember this—you’d get these flyers in the mail and they would be of overrun books and you could order—

Elizabeth: Oh!

Mike Long: You remember this? There’s a little, like, a catalog and you could order these overrun books. And I knew, I didn’t know what he did, but I knew Woody Allen was supposed to be really funny. And so I found a Woody Allen book I could buy for $2 and it was Without Feathers.

Elizabeth: Oh, of course!

Mike Long: And I read Without Feathers when I was about 10 or 11, I don’t know, 12 maybe. And I didn’t get all the jokes, but I understood enough of them to know this is not like anything else. I remember things—and it was this, and this has been a thing for me—just by the way, if I’m over-answering, just tell me to shut up anytime—

Elizabeth: No, it’s good, it’s good.

Mike Long: I remember the big takeaway for me unconsciously [00:09:00] was this mix of, of intellectual aspiration and utter absurdity. I’d never seen that put together before. He would have a joke about some philosopher, and of course I didn’t know who that was, but then the next one would be, Dickinson says, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” No, the thing with feathers is my cousin, I must take him to a specialist in Zurich. And it was like, oh, this is insane! A man with feathers! It just, it was just stupid. And I loved this juxtaposition of really, a really smart person doing really stupid things. And that has been for better, not for worse, that’s been a defining thing in my life, has been, can you be smart and stupid at the same time? Steve Martin was a big attraction for that very reason.

Elizabeth: And just, in your example, there, there is this encoded-ness of, Emily Dickinson, who is Emily Dickinson? What is a thing with feathers? And just knowing that there’s a kind of [00:10:00] secret code that a lot of people use to reference bigger concepts by quoting a poem by someone named Emily Dickinson or other references like that. I know—

Mike Long: Don’t lemme cut you off. Go ahead.

Elizabeth: No, just that, that, that kind of snowball effect of getting the inside references of a lot of literary references or, showbiz references, that’s, there’s a certain kind of glee involved in that.

Mike Long: Oh, absolutely. I, the other thing that I learned from it, and I guess I didn’t really put a name on it until much later, is that the—let’s see, how do I wanna say this? Have you read Woody Allen’s biography Apropos of Nothing? His autobiography. In it, he says, I’m not very smart. He said, this is a pose. He said, I learned what I know about philosophy from a girlfriend I had at the time. He said, I dropped out with school, I didn’t, he said, but I learned this trick, which is if I knew a [00:11:00] few of these things and I could allude to them, I would be perceived as an intellectual.

Elizabeth: There you go.

Mike Long: He said, all I wanna do is watch sports on television to this day. He said, I want to eat pizza, watch sports on television. He said, but I know if I say Nietzsche or something, I could slip through. And I thought, “Wow, that’s a hell of a trick right here.” And, and I’ve, and of course I sensed it, but I have, I was shocked to find out—and I knew he had dropped out of, I guess, Columbia. Or NYU. And I, and when he admitted this in this book, which I read just a year ago, I was like, “Wow, that’s the last piece of the puzzle.” There—and we all do this, but we don’t always admit it to ourselves. So that’s a, that’s another thing for me. Is this need. If you—there are, there’s a place you sometimes want to be perceived as being in, but you’re not in it. How do you, what is it? Code switching? Is that what it’s called?

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah. How do you code switch? How do you—

Mike Long: Yeah. And he had, he’d been doing it for decades.

Elizabeth: That’s so interesting. Really. ‘Cause in this area of Washington, DC there’s [00:12:00] lots and lots of people are very attached to their perch and their—

Mike Long: There are really smart people here and there and then there are people who know how to pretend they’re smart. And, and I think there are some things I know a lot about, but there are a whole lot more things where I just have to fake it. And a few years ago, I hope more than a few years ago, I just said the hell with that, I’m not gonna fake it anymore. If I don’t know, I’ll just tell you. Like I said with this, you named these books, I don’t know who the hell those people are. And I feel like it helps other people who hear it and they go, “I don’t know either. Thank goodness this guy doesn’t know.” So I don’t know. I know very few things. I know, if you wanna know something about Breaking Bad, we’ll talk about that, but, gimme a summary of Nietzsche’s philosophy?

Elizabeth: Yeah, right.

Mike Long: No. What time does it—

Michael: You’ve never met the spa[MM1] —

Mike Long: I can’t say it any better than you can. Who’s Sarah? What’s her last name?

Elizabeth: I love this. Let me rewind the videotape a little bit and ask you to go back to your very early experiences of writing. You talked about writing [00:13:00] plays for your friends and getting a script accepted for this children’s show called Zoom or, kind of, young people’s show. Were there other moments in your life where you discovered the power of the pen that really moved you forward into a life as someone who writes and writes speeches?

Mike Long: I’m gonna, I’m just gonna, I’m gonna take a sidebar on that actually, and I’ll answer that.

Another thing that came out of the Woody Allen stuff is he was—my father was a preacher, I’m a preacher, preacher’s kid—and he had this whole thing where it was like excerpts, he’d rewritten portions of the Old Testament, and they were hilarious. It was like behold the lion and the lambs shall lie down together, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.

And when

Michael: He put those in his sermons?

Mike Long: No, no, no. I wish! I’d love to drop that in. And then, he tells a story about—oh gee, see, my dad would be mortified that I can’t tell you this—where he is gonna kill his son as a sacrifice. And and he says, “It was as if the knife were already plunged in.” And then God said, “What are you doing?” [00:14:00] And he says, “You told me to sacrifice my son.” He goes, “Do you do everything you’re told?” And I, it had never, I had never, I’d never seen anybody laugh at the things I’d been told were sacred. And I thought, this is okay. This is funny. Who’s getting hurt by this? And so, it was another thing. It was, here’s another way you can, you can be creative. But I just wanted to get that in, ‘cause I think it’s important, is that was another moment for me, which I hadn’t thought about in a long time. And your question was other moments in, in that period.

Elizabeth: Yeah, where you can either take pen to paper or you can take a story and—

Mike Long: Sure.

Elizabeth: —put it off in a new direction.

Mike Long: But on top of that, you’re asking—to go back to the original before the sidebar—was what are some other things? I remember this: I was, as I may have said I was a pretty good student, and when I was about to enter the ninth grade, so we’re moving up a little bit here, I, my dad knew I wanted to write. And he was always so encouraging. My mother was wildly creative and bold. Is wildly creative and bold. And he was friends, he’d been friends since high school with a [00:15:00] really gifted young man at the time, Art Walhausen  is his name, and he was the publisher of the local newspaper. And so, he said, “Why don’t you—somebody from the high school always writes the news from the high school, why don’t you do that?” And so I got that. And that was my dad opening it up. So that, there was that bit of creativity I got to do for a while.

And then later in high school, I really wanted to be a radio announcer. I thought that would be so much fun. And, and I had a teacher named Jim McKeel who taught science and he knew how much I was interested in this. And he had a connection at a local radio station. 30 miles away.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Mike Long: And he said, “If you want to do it, go down and see this guy.” And Mr. McKeel took care of it. And so that was another opportunity to be creative in that way. And it launched a thing for me that lasted from, I was 16 when I first did a board shift, and I did it until I was the end of my freshman year in college.

Michael: So it sounds like you had the, obviously your [00:16:00] father’s sermons is a kind of writing, but then you had your playwriting, and then you had your journalism, and then you had your radio. So you had these various mediums. Were, were, did any of these sort of mediums or the people associated with become mentors to you or did you see them as mentors at all?

Mike Long: I owe a lot to Jim McKeel. Who I have not seen in—he passed away about 15 years ago—but owe Lot to Jim McKeel for being this very encouraging, very contrarian, goofy science teacher who just encouraged us to do everything. He taught us, he taught us, he taught all the science courses, but he also, in the biology section, he did a long bit on sex education ‘cause he didn’t think we’d all hear the, what we needed to hear wherever we were. And it was, and he was just frank and candid and kind and it was, he was just a good man. So I’d say Jim McKeel was great.

I always admired Mr. Walhausen because my [00:17:00] father admired him so much and one of his sons was a really close friend of mine. As for a mentor, I wouldn’t say they were mentors, but I’d say they were inspirations to be sure.

Elizabeth: Speaking of science, in college, you studied physics.

Mike Long: Yeah.

Elizabeth: In fact, you even studied physics in graduate school.

Mike Long: Yes, I did.

Elizabeth: So, what led you to physics as a field of study?

Mike Long: Desperate insecurity.

Michael: Okay.

Mike Long: I suffered from severe panic attacks starting as a child. There wasn’t much you could do about it and you were wise not to say anything about it because who knows what they would do to you. Put you in a hos—

Elizabeth: Something to really panic about!

Mike Long: Oh, yeah! It wasn’t, my parents were very understanding, that wasn’t the problem. But I remember speaking to a psychiatrist in my twenties and he said, I remember the voice he used, he said, “It’s good you didn’t say anything when you were little.” He said, “They would’ve put you in a hospital and you’d still be there.”

Elizabeth: Wow.

Mike Long: So, that, you’ve been warned now. But now remind me where I was going with that.

Elizabeth: You were talking about why you chose physics.

Mike Long: Oh, [00:18:00] physics! One of the ways people—I know anxiety is a popular poison these days and so anybody hearing this knows that one of the ways you deal with it, some of us deal with it, is to try to nail down everything around us. And for me, that was to be the smartest guy in the room in every room. And I thought, what’s the hardest thing I can study? I allowed that to be physics and mathematics. And so that’s what I went away to do in order to become the smartest man in the world or smartest man in the room. And that’s why I studied it.

I also found it fascinating, and I recommend that course of studied to anyone who asks me. I don’t care what they’re interested in. Go study physics and mathematics, learn to be a critical thinker, learn what the thing is in itself, to quote Marcus Aurelius. What is the thing in itself? If you understand that, with a little bit of philosophy thrown in, be careful with that, maybe read Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy along the way and find somebody who’s more interested in giving you a survey of philosophy rather than an indoctrination. But, yeah, math and physics is—I guess math is the queen of the sciences, some [00:19:00] say, but that’s why I studied it. And I wouldn’t change anything.

Elizabeth: Interestingly, we have an adult daughter, Maya, who also studied physics. She has a BS in physics from Gilford College. Wonderful organization, institution. And her senior thesis was on the physics of dance. She was also a dancer, and she did a 3D physics analysis of a pirouette. Which seemed to me, to us, as a really creative way to explore physics as a science. So, can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between physics as a science and creativity?

Mike Long: First, there’s the neuroscientific aspect. Which we couldn’t understand unless we did, unless we engaged in serious critical thinking and study and stood on the shoulder of the giants who had investigated the neurology in the first place.

As for the connection between physics and creativity, I’ll say only that people who aspire to be creative need to treat it like a job. And that means beginning with a thorough understanding of the tools that you have and the [00:20:00] pieces you intend to assemble. You can certainly trip across something beautiful or something inspiring, which is one definition or two definitions of art. But to… I, I think it’s a mistake to conflate an amusing thought with a rigorous approach to creating what’s in your mind.

Elizabeth: So rigor is the key.

Mike Long: Yes. Rigor is the key to everything. At one level. There’s lots of room for, and now let’s have a wide-open field, and that’s what the unconscious mind is. But you have to, if I put you in a room and it’s an empty room, you won’t be able to make anything. But if put you in a room with a bunch of random pieces and combine that with your capacity or your ability, I should say, to combine things in interesting and productive ways, then you can make something right. But not until. At least not purposefully.

Michael: Now, out of academia, you, I think you spent like a decade as a systems analyst. [00:21:00]

Mike Long: Yeah.

Michael: Picking up freelancing work along the way.

Mike Long: No. Oh, yeah. Freelancing on the creative side, but definitely full-time employed as somebody who wrote, wrote code. Yeah.

Michael: But now then you became the chief speech writer and special assistant to Senator Fred Thompson.

Mike Long: Yeah!

Michael: Whom our listeners might remember as the sort of the tough DA in Law and Order.

Mike Long: Yeah.

Michael: Now, going from a systems analyst to speech writer is quite the transition. I would love it if you would talk for a bit about the creative processing that went into that transformation there. There must have been key moments when a leap of faith was required.

Mike Long: Sure.

Michael: Can you share that?

Mike Long: Sure. I wanted to be a comedian. And the reason I went to graduate school in Nashville was because one of the, the oldest new clubs at the time in the comedy boom was in Nashville. A place called Zanies run by a guy named Lenny Sisselman, who I’m actually working with on another project right now, today, many years later. And so that’s why I went to Vanderbilt for graduate school was because there’s a comedy club 10 minutes away from the [00:22:00] gate! And I wanted to do comedy and so I did that off and on while I was doing standup, but I was competing with this mental, or contending with this mental illness. And so, I really didn’t have what it took to get in the car and go on the road. Plus, I was married and, or I am married, same woman! And, and I didn’t want to leave my family like that. And so I was struggling with, I know what I wanna do in my heart, but I know what the other part of my heart wants as well. So I thought if I can’t—and plus, let’s be honest, I wasn’t that good as a standup. So I think if anything, my half-hearted jokes in the last half hour should demonstrate my lack of ability there.

So, I thought, I can write, I like to write. Let me do that. And I started writing pieces. In fact, Lenny Sisselman opened that door. I started writing interviews with comedians for the local free distribution newspaper, local alternative press called the Nashville Scene, which went on to be quite a, quite a publication. So I thought, I like doing this and I can write pretty well—and I’ve never been trained in this, by the way.

Elizabeth: Sure. Yeah.

Mike Long: Never been trained in it at all. The last English course I took [00:23:00] was in high school.

Elizabeth: Is that right?

Mike Long: Yeah. Now I teach at Georgetown. So yeah, I—

Elizabeth: Quite a slight of hand, then.

Mike Long: I think I might be a pretty good autodidact. Yeah, no, I don’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing. I think I know what I’m doing. But I’m saying you can learn an awful lot if you go to the right places and try to learn what you ought to learn and then explore it yourself.

So I said, “I can be a writer, I can do this.” And the writers I liked, I was very interested in politics at the time, not so much anymore, but at the time I was very interested in politics, and I saw that the most interesting writing seemed to come from guys who would have in their shirttail bio, “former speech writer for x.” I was like, what’s that? So I started calling these people. And speech writers don’t get a lot of letters. Turns out they’ll write you back.

And then there was a guy named Terry Teachout, whose name, I bet you know.  Terry was the theater critic and for awhile, the dance critic at the Journal. And Terry was from the, the next town over where I grew up. So he’d gone to New York and made it. And so I called Terry, I didn’t know him, but my wife’s family knew him. And he said, “Yeah, I’ll help you.” And so he [00:24:00] started making calls and these people would open doors for me. And so that’s how, I said, “I’m gonna come to Washington.”

I remember just before we left and I, a friend of mine, maybe you’ve heard of America’s Dumbest Criminals or World’s Dumbest Criminals?

Michael: Oh, oh, I think so, yeah.

Mike Long: A friend of mine invented that. His name is Leland Gregory, and he was in Nashville. I remember sitting on my deck in Nashville and he goes, “So you’re gonna go be a speech writer?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah I am.” He goes, “Have you ever written a speech, by the way?” And I go, “No.” And he goes, “Good luck with that.”

So I came to Washington and I had written a couple of essays for the local paper in Nashville, for the Banner. And I had just written, that’s, this is just the bullshit I do, I’d rather look stupid than get turned down by not asking. So I just sent this to, to, to Thompson’s office and I said, “I wanna be your speech writer. Here’s some stuff I’ve written.” And—

Elizabeth: I love this!

Mike Long: And they wrote back and said, “He doesn’t really want a speech writer, but we’ll help you find work.” And a guy [00:25:00] named Kelvin Moxley in that office took me on as his little project and he helped me find some other work. And then once I’d moved up here and taken a position writing a little bit, like I’d been here a few weeks and they called and said, “We’ve been trying to find you.” ‘Cause this is in the nineties. Internet wasn’t everywhere.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Internet. Email.

Mike Long: Yeah. And he said, “Fred wants a speech writer now and he likes you.” So that was that.

Elizabeth: That’s so interesting because—

Mike Long: Just ask for stuff. If you want stuff, just go ask. They’re gonna say no most of the time, but when they say yes, it’s like, that’s nuts!

Michael: Really.

Elizabeth: Hold that thought, ‘cause I’m gonna ask you for advice at the end of this interview.

But anyway, you have also written speeches for a wide variety of clients that cover a wide variety of fields and I assume a wide variety of perspectives on life and politics. So as someone who’s written words for others, both fictional and real, I know the process of placing your feet in someone else’s shoes, or in this case the word, your words in someone else’s [00:26:00] mouth requires a tremendous level of creativity. So can you talk about the process of speech writing in terms of putting words in someone else’s mouth from research to draft to final product?

Mike Long: Yeah. Here’s one of my contrarian opinions, but—and I’m sure, not that I’m a known figure at all, I am not, but I know the people who will listen to this, some of them will be people who know me or have taken my courses or have had a seminar with me somewhere and they’ll know what I’m about to say—when a speech writer or anybody else says, “I need to capture your voice,” look out. Because that is somebody who’s just trying to add a zero to the invoice. Okay? Or they just simply don’t know what they’re doing.

Here’s the thing. Let’s see, since we’re on audio, I won’t do this, but if I draw a triangle and it’s green and it has a little circle around the bottom, you’d probably say that’s a Christmas tree, right? It’s a Christmas tree. And I would say, no, it’s not a Christmas tree. It is the Christmas tree. It is the Christmas tree. You with me so far? This is the Christmas tree.

And then I put some tinsel on it and I go, and [00:27:00] this is Michael’s Christmas tree. And then I put some balls on it and a star on the top and I say, and this is Elizabeth’s Christmas tree. And then I put some, some twinkling lights on, say this is my Christmas tree.

There is the Christmas tree and all the ornaments you add to it are the things that make it your Christmas tree. And that’s the way speech writing works. Is the thing that succeeds is a well-structured speech that does the most important thing for an audience, which is not to inform them or even persuade them, it is to maintain their attention at every moment ‘cause listening is hard. And speeches are most often boring. So what you need to do is maintain their attention at every turn. And so, what I do is first I write a well-structured speech, the Christmas tree. And then if I know, “Oh you gotta capture my voice,” I’m not a linguist, I’m not qualified to do that. But I know you may like dramatic pauses, extra-long sentences. You may like quotes, you may like stories, you might like to end a certain way. I just sprinkle those ornaments on the piece.

Elizabeth: On the Christmas tree, yeah.

Mike Long: And then, and I can tell you that I wrote a speech for a particular Secretary of State [00:28:00] and—or Secretary of Defense, rather—and when I gave it to, the bottom line is his best friend read it and said this sounds exactly like him. I’d never met him when I wrote it, but that’s what he said. And if I gave you that speech and I said, “Who’s your favorite speaker?” And you said, I’m gonna say President Obama. I’d say, “I wrote this for Obama.” And you would say, no, you would say it sounds just like him.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Mike Long: Because it’s the structure. Yeah, it’s the structure. When you say somebody’s a great speaker, what you mean is they make it not boring. They compel me to listen.

Elizabeth: So did you draw from your father, the preacher, when you became a speech writer, was that sort of informing your use of language and the spoken word.

Mike Long: I’m like a guitar player who learned the theory after they learned to play. I learned how things should sound from listening to my father, who was a wonderful, very talented and mostly intuitive—I say mostly intuitive cause I didn’t see him get his education. I know he got his education, but I always think of him, I like to think of him as primarily an intuitive speaker. But he was very [00:29:00] good and he had marvelous control of his voice. And the thing about it is what he said was not there to sell the material. He believed what he was saying. He wanted you to believe it too and he was not there to bring in the sheaves. That was he said, “This is what I believe, and it’s transformed the way I live. And I want you to hear about it too, so you can make that decision as well.” But not—

Elizabeth: So authenticity in the sincerity.

Mike Long: It was, yeah, it was—even authenticity, you can fake that. This was a man who said, “Let me tell you what is the truth.”

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Mike Long: And while, and you can say, “I don’t think that’s true.” And that’s fine, too, if that’s how you feel. But that informs the way I write speeches. Is I tell ’em all the time, “Don’t say anything you don’t mean.”

Elizabeth: Good point. Yeah.

Michael: Yeah, so I assume that then when you write their speeches for them, you are, you’re having to believe in what you’re saying.

Mike Long: I’m not gonna write—yeah, yeah.

Michael: In that sense, you’re stepping into their belief system.

Mike Long: Yeah, it’s like I could, when I told you about my childhood, I could’ve said everybody has a tough [00:30:00] childhood, and sometimes it’s in you and sometimes it’s in other people. But I said, no, I suffered with mental illness undiagnosed. I was straightforward with you. Because, number one, that makes the story easier to understand. Number two, happens to be true. And number three, there are people who hear it and go, “I thought I was the only one.” So I can help people.

Michael: Alright, now, I noticed that you were, like, the Director of the White House—

Mike Long: That’s, I, go ahead. I’m, yeah.

Michael: You’re not the director of the White House writers?

Mike Long: There are many directors. It’s a, it’s a title.

Michael: Oh, okay. You are one of the directors.

Mike Long: One of the directors, yes.

Michael: No, I had never heard of the White House Writers Group. I did look it up just to figure out what it was, and it, and it’s sounded like a good organization. And it’s about speech writing. But, but can you talk about the similarities and differences between the creative process of writing, of speech writing, and the process of, as their website states, “our aim is to understand client’s complex stories, then [00:31:00] transform those stories into clear and compelling narratives.” Particularly this notion of creating narratives through, through the writing of a speech or what have you.

Mike Long: Sure. The White House Writers Group is the Reagan and Bush ‘41 speech writing shop lifted whole out of the White House and put in the private sector. So the people who wrote those famous speeches for President Reagan and less so for President Bush who followed for one term, this is those individuals. Almost all of them.

And one of the, one of the people that I had been reaching out to was a part of this group, and so I set my goal to become a part of the White House Writers Group. And I was, I can’t swear this is true, but I believe I was the first speech writer they hired who had not worked in the White House. So I’m proud of that.

As for what they say about, about understanding clients’ stories and putting ’em in a compelling narrative, for a long time when people ask me what I did what I do, I would say I’m a professional explainer. And I really am, no [00:32:00] matter what role I’m in. And at White House Writers ,and anybody who’s doing communication at a, on complex matters, it begins with understanding the subject almost entirely. Now, there are times when you can’t understand every bit of it, and there are times you don’t need to understand every bit of it, but you present your best face, and that is, we have a group of critical thinkers who have experience understanding complex ideas and then presenting them in a way that the layperson can understand it. And present it in a way that the layperson might be persuaded to take this position.

Elizabeth: To talk a little bit more about this business of writing compelling narratives, as, to just move forward a bit, as we mentioned in our intro, the neurologist David Eagleman compared your book on dopamine, which is entitled The Molecule of More, to a, quote, “epic saga and a page turner,” usually [00:33:00] our descriptors, say, for legends and love stories. So I’d love to hear about your experience writing your book, which returns you to the realm of the sciences while combining your more recent adventures and creative writing. So, what was that experience like? Of writing The Molecule of More and, particularly, as an act of collaboration.

Mike Long: Sure. First is the book. I’ll, again, if I’m gonna be self-exposing on the bad things, I’ll say this is a very successful book and it’s a very good book. And it is now available in 22, 23 translations? Just went into a second printing and or second release actually in Poland. We have two editions in China. It’s a big book.

Elizabeth: This is great.

Mike Long: And so you ask, how is it that you take this otherwise dry sounding topic and make it interesting? It begins with this: I had a brilliant collaborator. Dan Lieberman has been my friend for many years. He’s [00:34:00] a, he is a psychiatrist. He’s associated with George Washington University and now he’s associated with some private sector work. And we’ve been friends for so long, we wanted to do something besides go to lunch. And so he began to cast about for a topic that we might be able to write about together. And he found this, this wonderful book from a few years ago that had cracked the, cracked the door open on the matter of dopamine. Because it’s a popular term in the press. And when you read about it, or when you read about it at that time, it would say it’s the molecule of pleasure, the molecule of pleasure. I’m proud to say that, and we noted this the other day, when you read about the molecule dopamine now, you most often see it referred to as the molecule of more. We take credit for that. That was one of our long-term big goals is can we change the way people think? It’s not about seeking pleasure, it’s about seeking more.

Now, to your question about how did this happen in, in collaboration. Dan is the subject matter expert. I am not. I can talk about it, but I can’t talk about it at the level of a psychiatrist [00:35:00] who’s been at it for so long. So what we did was he loves writing and I love science. So we sat down and for six months, this is interesting to those of you who are listening who’ve written a book will go, “Really? You did it that way.”

Elizabeth: In six months?

Mike Long: No, no, the thing that’s coming. We spent six months, we spent six months just talking and writing about how we might best organize this material. And we wrote a few chapters and threw them away. And we finally came up with this structure, and I won’t go into it too deeply, but it’s a very straightforward structure, like seven chapters. And, and we, first, we explain the idea and then we invest, we drill down in different areas of life, right? Politics, creativity, love, addiction, and we built it out of the science. So many pop science books are rounded off good enough, close enough to the science. I thought I was rigorous, my partner in this was very rigorous. And just would drag us through the briar patch on this. Just really getting in every scientific detail.

So how do you make that [00:36:00] interesting? Well, you ask, how does this affect someone’s life? And you don’t say, what is it that is popular today? You go to the core. What is it we most want? We wanna be secure, safe, warm, loved. And everything in this book takes you back to that. How does dopamine affect this thing that’s on your heart, not on your mind, but on your heart?

And the book is told with a lot of humor. The first story is it opens with a narrative. It’s a guy getting ready in in front of the mirror. And he has counted the number of days since he’s last had sex. And he’s like, “Tonight that ends.” And so the book begins with this, interlacing this story of seeking a partner for that with, with the neurological, or the neuroscientific, the neurotransmitter basis of this. Because we get to the end of the little passage of the story and he says, but, and he begins to fall for this with this woman. And we say but he was under the, they were both under the influence of a powerful chemical. And it turned out everyone in the room was. And that [00:37:00] was dopamine. And then we go in, we tell the science, the history—

Michael: So you embed the science into these narratives, these stories about—

Mike Long: Yes.

Michael: Are these real people or are they fiction? Or are they—

Mike Long: Oh, there’s a, there are stories that we make up. And we present them as, “Here’s a bit of a novelistic approach.”

Michael: Oh, okay.

Mike Long: But then we’re, it’s peppered with stories that, there’s a long passage in there about Brian Wilson. And The Beach Boys. There’s a thing in there about, oh boy, you name it. There’s a long passage about Seinfeld and George Costanza and what it means to, to be—you’ll have to read it. But, and then there’s stuff in there about The Office, you remember the Will Ferrell character? And there’s a scene in it where he reaches out and he thinks he wants that bite of cake, and then he gets it, and he hates it as soon as he has it. That’s a perfect demonstration of how dopamine tells us “you’re gonna love it, you’re gonna love it!” And you get it and it’s like, what else is there? And so we take all these examples from popular culture and, and show that, oh, this is, here’s how you can understand it with things you already know. And that’s why people love this book so much.

Michael: So you personify the dopamine.

Mike Long: Yes! [00:38:00] Put Michael. Put Michael. Yes. So we have a wonderful time doing it.

Michael: That’s a secret, then.

Mike Long: Yeah!

Michael: Excellent. Let’s go ahead and shift to your, your playwriting. Where you actually are getting into the actual creation of characters and dramatic situations, alright? Now, obviously there are some of the, probably, same skills as writing a speech or writing a book on the, the science book where you’re dramatizing the science, probably feed into the space occupied by a playwright. Now, in one of your plays, it’s called—where is it?

Elizabeth: Do I Know You?

Michael: Do I Know You?

Mike Long: Do I Know You? Yeah. That was my, that was my most recent play that was produced in New York in February.

Michael: And I was immediately struck by the two characters, George and Martha. And being a theater artist, I immediately thought of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Mike Long: Yeah, there you go!

Michael: Yeah. And then I said, that’s also the founding father and first lady.

Mike Long: You got it, you got it. Wrote it for you, Michael. That’s what those references were for.

Michael: And I thought of Elizabeth Taylor. Anyway, that dates me, but anyway. [00:39:00] Alright. Alright. But, but what was your process for creating a play like this where your choosing characters’ names and the connotative associations that those names might have? And then presented it to a theater audience. What was the process of creating that play?

Mike Long: I really, as you can tell, I really chafe at any sort of self-referential, “what is your process” kind of thing. I just, I hate to, I hate for any pretentiousness to be attached to what I do. I, what I tend to do is I find an idea that appeals to me, usually—boy, this sounds pretentious—some idea in philosophy. I say, how can we illustrate that? And so in, in that one, I liked the idea, which isn’t a formal philosophical idea, at least that I’m qualified to talk about, but I like the idea from a song by Jason Isbell, which is quoted at the front and beginning, where he says the song—what’s the song called? do you remember? It’s called “If We Were Vampires.”

Elizabeth: Okay. I know Jason Isbell. I couldn’t, yeah, I couldn’t speak to it.

Mike Long: And the point of the [00:40:00] song is if you didn’t die, you wouldn’t care. You’d always have a second chance. But what if you didn’t have a second chance? That’s why dying makes love matter. If you didn’t know there was an end, you wouldn’t have to care. You could just blow off anything. We’re always gonna be here so we don’t have to solve this, but if you know there’s an end, you better enjoy it. And I thought, what if somebody understood that? What if they got both parts of that? And in this, it’s about people who pass away and then they, they end up in whatever you wanna call it, some afterlife. And they discover that they’re just living life over and over again. With the same partner.

Elizabeth: With the same—yeah, when I read your play, which is wonderful by the way—

Mike Long: Thank you very much.

Elizabeth: Not only is it Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but it’s also Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and it’s riffing on Sartre’s No Exit.

Mike Long: I’ll take all this, sure. Name some more. Name Neil. Say something about Neil! Who else am I like? “It’s Shakespearean, Michael.” [00:41:00]

Elizabeth: Absolutely. I loved those sonnets.

Mike Long: I knocked those off in the bathroom.

Elizabeth: It was, I mean there’s a sort of real sardonic humor in that, but also it’s pretty haunting in that sense that—

Mike Long: Thank you.

Elizabeth: —that there’s these—anyone who knows Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? knows the relationship between Georgia and Martha and the really complex, dysfunctional inter-dependence that they have on each other. So, anyway, it’s not for the faint of heart, that play.  

Let me move forward and talk to you about the, for the last 15 years, you’ve also committed a lot of time to the art of education. In writing, of course, but across a wide spectrum of writing media and being both an—Michael and I are both educators ourselves, so we know that the creation of an educational experience, of a lesson plan or a coherent curriculum and pedagogy has more to do with [00:42:00] emotionally engaging the student than simply transferring information.

Mike Long: Boy. Yes. Yes. I wish every educator to know that.

Elizabeth: It’s all the process. So what are some of the techniques you use to creatively engage your students?

Mike Long: Again, I don’t wanna sound pretentious, I’ll just describe what I do. First, I teach graduate students exclusively. And I want them—and they’re usually there for a purpose, they’re, and by that I mean for a professional purpose. This is a professional program. And so I want them to know that I’m there to equip them with the skill that they did not have.

In fact, when I teach seminars for professionals out in the field, I often say, “At the end of this session, you’re going to have a skill that you didn’t have before. If you don’t, I want you to tell people that I’m not worth hiring.” Because there’s gotta be something out there. There’s gotta be somebody standing up saying, there’s a time [00:43:00] to study theory and thought and feeling, and there’s a time to acquire. If you present yourself as giving people professional skills, you damn well give them professional skills. It’s not a time to meditate.

So I give them things they can use and then I give that to them, give it to them in a way that they can immediately act on it. When you learn to ride a bicycle, somebody doesn’t say, “Let me tell you about the centrifugal force here.” See, that’s how well my physics helps, centrifugal force, lemme tell you about how this works with the right-hand rule. First, no.

Elizabeth: Let’s talk about momentum and velocity.

Mike Long: Yeah, let’s talk about momentum. No. Let’s say if you put your foot here and you push and you’re gonna feel this little balance and you move. So I teach writing as almost a tick off the boxes thing. Because once they can do it, then they get the joy of mastery. And once you have the joy of mastery, then you can begin to refine by digging into some of the ideas behind it, some of the theory. So it’s all about achievement for me.

That, and I want them to know that I care about what happens [00:44:00] to them. Because a lot of people in the world don’t have anybody to care about ‘em.

Elizabeth: Sure, yeah. As a graduate student, you’ve invested heavily in this pursuitSo you definitely want to feel you’re joining—

Mike Long: Yeah. I want ’em to know they’re they’ve got somebody. I’m a stranger, but they can call me. Here’s my, here, I can give ’em my phone number. At the beginning of every semester, “Here’s my phone number. You call me.”

Elizabeth: Wow.

Mike Long: What could be more important than that?

Elizabeth: Well, and as—

Michael: So when you’re dealing with graduate student, what would be the first sort of skill you want them to, to master?

Mike Long: One of the courses that I teach—I’m teaching one course right now at Georgetown, which is public relations writing, which sounds dry probably.

Michael: Right.

Mike Long: But it’s fairly popular course. I think, because of the way I teach it. And so the first thing we do, I looked at the curriculum. I have a wonderful colleague named Carol Blymire and I, she’s the one who brought me into Georgetown and or introduced me to make the connection to get in Georgetown and so I, I borrowed a lot of her order from her, the order from what she was doing. And so I give her the credit for that.

Now, [00:45:00] what I would know that you want early on, the key to, in my opinion, the key to success, with your education is immediate and early success. So, the first night, by the end of the first class, you can write a professional press release. And, and so at the end of the class, they know how to do that. Then I send ’em away with some homework and they try to do it. And the way I teach them to do it is not, “Here’s what the goal is and here’s—.” No, this is doing one thing, in this case of press release as opposed to—forgive me, I’ll be a little technical, a little boring: the purpose of press release is to get the reporter to call you back. There are lots of other things press release gets used for. That’s not what we’re here for. And then here’s how to write a headline. Here’s how to structure it. Here’s how to write a subheading. Here’s these three elements. Here’s how to write these particular paragraphs one at a time. And they go, this is, nobody’s ever taught me writing like this before. They go, what are you trying to achieve? And how can you say it? No. No. And once you can do something at a professional level quickly, you’re like, maybe I can do these other things. And they do pretty well.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I’ve worked with young children, three to five-year-olds [00:46:00] in this Theatrical Journey Project I led for many years. But one of my mantras was “nothing succeeds like success.”

Mike Long: Boy, that’s, see, there’s no daylight between us.

Elizabeth: And especially with these little kiddos, these particularly bouncy, bouncy little kiddos who are so accustomed to being slammed for moving around too much. And if they can engage and succeed and for half an hour, they’re not in trouble—

Mike Long: Yes!

Elizabeth: It’s success. Man, talk about dopamine.

Mike Long: Yes! Because it’s the desire for more. If I can do this, what else can I do? That’s, if you wanna teach somebody guitar, you don’t begin with finger exercises. You say, here in a minute, you’re gonna be able to play the first verse of “Take It Easy.” Or “Witchy Woman” or something. Okay! Then 20 minutes later you’re playing “Witchy Woman.” It might not be very fancy, but you can do it. And you’re like, what else is out there?

Michael: So when you’re putting together, when you’re putting together a play, then, do you have a similar philosophy in the sense that the audience, they want to immediately, you obviously want to immediately [00:47:00] engage them in some way? I used to review plays and I can’t, numerous times I would be like, oh, if the exposition doesn’t end soon… So do you apply a sort of a, are there, sort of, a set of criteria or things to go to, things when you’re creating a play to pull that audience in right away?

Mike Long: Yes. The thing that I borrow from other kinds of writing that I put in place is listening is hard. Listening is hard. And if you, if there’s ever a moment when they’re having to struggle, that’s not good. I call it the “Ooh, piece of candy” method. You ever watch the show Family Guy?

Elizabeth: Oh, yes.

Mike Long: You remember they were trying to lure James Woods down the street, and he goes, “Ooh, piece of candy. Ooh, piece of candy. Ooh, piece of candy.” And that’s the way I do everything is “Ooh, piece of candy. Piece of candy.” And so—I can swear on here, can’t I?

Michael: Yeah, yeah!

Mike Long: Okay. Like there’s a play I wrote, and the first line is this guy standing over another guy and he [00:48:00] says, “Say ‘what’ one more time, motherfucker.” Lifted out of Pulp Fiction.

Elizabeth: Right, yeah.

Mike Long: And you’re like, what is going on? If you can open with a place where people go, what is going on? I love, and you guys know, you’re theater people, come into a scene at the last possible moment where it still makes sense. That’s my mantra right there.

And I explain this to students when I’m teaching creative writing. And I say, let’s say somebody’s at dinner and they’re coming out to their family at dinner. Okay? So this is a, this is gonna be a tense moment for some people. So you don’t open with, they’re sitting there tapping their feet. They’re like, oh, whispering to their partner. No. You open with the dad with a fork halfway between the plate and his mouth going, “What did you say?” That’s the first line of the scene. And now the audience is like, what’s going on? Instead of all the exposition, as you said, Michael. Just put us there! ‘Cause audiences are smarter than you give them credit for and they like being lost. Just a little bit. Because they want to, they wanna be pulled forward.

Like [00:49:00] Perry Mason, the new Perry Mason on HBO is a very good example of this. It’s a very complicated process, or a plot, but—to me it is, I’m slow on that—but I kept watching ‘cause I thought, it’s gonna keep, it’s gonna be clear. It’s gonna be clear. And this is a crazy situation. Yeah, I can go on and on about this philosophy.

Michael: Sure. Yeah.

Mike Long: Vince, I’ll say one other thing, is Vince Gilligan is somebody I’ve just met once, but I’m a huge admirer of Breaking Bad and I learned so much from Breaking Bad. I really owe him.

Michael: Oh, it’s an incredible show.

Mike Long: It’s an incredible piece of work.

Michael: Well-written, too.

Mike Long: And he says, he talks about, or people who had been in the writing room with him would say that, you create an impossible situation for the character, and then you don’t, you can’t, he wouldn’t let them leave the writing room until they’d solved it.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Mike Long: And he said, this is, he said, there’s no—you do it. You figure it out. Yeah. And he said, there were times when they were like, “We’ve gone too far. We can’t fix this. We can’t find our way out.”

Elizabeth: “There’s no way to get outta this hole!”

Michael: Yeah, like impossible situation can be an incredible motivator for, yeah, a wonderful story. Or you have to know when to go, [00:50:00] “That’s too impossible.”

Mike Long: Yeah. Yeah. But that’s Gilligan’s philosophy is you can never go too far. And I know he’s, you watch it, and of course it makes perfect sense, but at the end of, I think it’s the end of season six where he opens the trunk and there’s a gun in there and there’s and he’s all got a beard and all this. When they wrote that, they didn’t know how the show was gonna, how they were gonna write the end. They just said that’d be crazy if he had a gun in his trunk. And then they came back for the next season to try to work out the rest of the beats. And, which another thing, I believe in the beat system, Hollywood beat system for every kind of work. And, and they were like, “I don’t know how we’re gonna fix this.”

Elizabeth: Yeah, right.

Mike Long: Now he’s armed. He wasn’t armed for six seasons and now he is, what do we do?

Elizabeth: So a beat, just to our listeners, is a kind of clustering of action. I don’t know exactly. It’s a, it can go on for several minutes or whatnot, but it’s how you break a scene down into little digestible chunks and there’s a completed action.

Mike Long: Yeah. And it’s also, in my, and the thing I’m referring to is not only that, but also how you break down a story, which is a series of inciting [00:51:00] incidents and so forth.

Michael: Right.  

Elizabeth: This has been fabulous. We can sit—

Mike Long: Ha! I dunno about that.

Elizabeth: No, it has! We can sit here and we could just talk.

Michael: And, and we like to conclude our interviews by this is, what you—

Mike Long: Interpretive dance?

Michael: Yes! Some interpretive dance. Where are the cameras? Anyway—

Mike Long: Oh, that’s the beauty part of this.

Michael: But you mentioned this sort of at the beginning in terms of how you view creativity. But one of the, sort of, motivating forces behind this podcast is the, is this idea of, sort of, creativity shaping who we are. As the crucial ingredient into a compelling narrative arc for each of us, right? And so I was just hoping that you could maybe talk a little bit, or maybe wax a little philosophical even, if you wish, about how creativity, the role creativity has played or, and continues to play in the shaping of who you are as a person.

Mike Long: Sure. Again, I don’t ever wanna be, I’m just terrified of sounding pretentious because that’s the people I just can’t stand. I don’t hate anybody, but if there’s somebody I hate, it’s pretentious people. And I [00:52:00] never wanna sound like that. And the things I engage in are just an invitation to be a pretentious prick. So I, I don’t wanna do that.

Elizabeth: You’re not a pretentious prick.

Mike Long: I’m not pretentious. How about that? So I wanna be careful with that.

Here’s what I’ll say, is when we were writing Molecule of More, we came across a quote from Neil Armstrong. And he said, somebody asked him, what did, “What do you think about having walked on the moon?” And Neil Armstrong said, “It was something we did. Now we should do something else.”

That’s a weird thing to say, isn’t it? It’s a weird thing to say. But I think if—I’m not one to give advice, so I won’t give advice, I’ll say, here’s what has been the source of peace for me. Is that somebody asked me the other day how many copies we’d sold of Molecule of More, and I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Really? You don’t know?” I said, “Oh, it’s done. I can tell you that.” But I can’t tell you within 10,000 copies, probably within 100,000, how many it sold. I said, because I said, “My partner keeps up. My writing partner keeps up, but I don’t.” [00:53:00] And I said, “I like that it’s sold a lot, but now we should do something else.”

I like the work. I never understood how somebody could go to New York and be a struggling actor for 40 years until just the past few years. And it’s, I just love the work. I love to sit in there and write. I didn’t understand how a poet could sit in their room and write poetry and then it was not really published much and, but they were enjoying the work. And I’ve come to love the work. I love the work so much. And I want to get published, of course I do. I want to be noted. I want to be invited to do things like this. This has been a joy talking to you two. But if I had spent the last two hours working on my new play, that would’ve been pretty good too.

Elizabeth: You’d have been pretty happy.

Mike Long: Yeah.

Elizabeth: I know you just said you don’t like giving advice, but we wanna push you to give our listeners—

Mike Long: ‘Cause who am I to give advice? Some asshole.

Elizabeth: Just making the best of whatever lot we’ve got in life. But [00:54:00] what practical advice, you’ve talked about your practical approach to your students and how to write a press release, is there other practical advice that you would give to our listeners about how to nurture and sustain their own creativity?

Mike Long: Yeah. Treat it like a job.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Mike Long: Yeah. You’ll be shocked at as soon as you do it. How? Simply setting aside time every day. Not goals, but time committed to it, dedicated to an act. Do it. I’ve studied French every day, literally—and I hate that word, but here it fits—literally every day for over 2,700 days. Every day, I’ve studied French. I’m not very good at it, but, unless you speak French, I’m better than you.

Elizabeth: You’re certainly better than I.

Mike Long: And all I did—

Elizabeth: “Je m’appelle—”

Mike Long: There you go. That’s not bad. Maybe you are better.

But just by doing it every day you acquire something. I’m working on an outline for a book. I have several open projects right now, and every day, it was like about a week ago, I was like, “Use your own advice, Mike.” And so every day [00:55:00] for 20 minutes, I, I say, hey, I set the alarm for 20 minutes and I work on this outline. And within just a few days, oh, I’m making real progress. If you work every day on something without worrying about, excuse me, oh, I’m gonna finish the chapter today. Or even I’m gonna finish 500 words. No, just set aside the time. It adds up. If you decide to walk every day for 30 minutes, at the end of a week you’ll be seven miles from home. You just work. You just do the work. And if you, and whether you’re in it for me, like, the way I’m in it, as I say, I like to think I’m primarily in it for the work. I think that’s the case/ Although it’s easy to say when you’re having some success.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Mike Long: So I’m not blind to the fact that I’m getting some attention for what I do, and compensation, but if you just say, every day I’m gonna work and this is the time I’m gonna do it, then you’re going to see results. And that’s a wonderful feeling.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah, there’s an old adage about writing a [00:56:00] novel. It’s like driving through fog. In the headlights, you can only see a few feet ahead of yourself, but—

Mike Long: Now, well, we can talk about that if you want. And that is, for me, I’m a great believer in structure and I think unless you are magical or you already have a deal with a publisher, you better know where you’re headed. You better know beat for beat where you’re headed. Now, I know you’re a published novelist twice over with a new release fresh out.

Elizabeth: Oh, it’s coming out in a few months.

Mike Long: So we may differ, and since you’re the, you’ve got the credential right there, we may differ on that. I just feel that I am so reliant on structure that I would, I’ve written the long form, I’ve got a novel and a drawer in there I wrote without a structure plan. It worked all right. But the novel that I have right now is pretty structured.

Elizabeth: Pretty structured.

Michael: So have, your plays, did you structure those out as well?

Mike Long: Less of a structure ‘cause I write a lot of short, I write a lot of one-acts, right? [00:57:00] And I think, it’s like I say to speech writers, say, I teach a very methodical approach to speech writing for people who have never written speeches before. Once you understand what a speech has to do, which is basically just hold them at every second, there are lots of ways to do it. Comedians don’t follow a structure, but they keep your attention far better than a speechmaker does. It’s ‘cause they know what they’re doing. They know they have to keep your attention. There are a million ways to do it. But coming into speech writing cold, you better have somebody who says, “Hey, hit these bases on your way through.”

Michael: I really like the advice of enjoying what you’re doing and enjoying the act of creating. I think that’s solid advice.

Mike Long: Let me add one other thing here. I’ve taken so much of your time but I’ll take this. One last thing is, I just finished—I mentioned it to you and we were looking in my office a moment ago—I just finished Midnight Cowboy by Herlihy and I had no idea this was out there. If you want to see, if you’re a writer and you wanna read a book and hurl it across the room in jealousy, pick up Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy. It is the most beautiful book about the most sad [00:58:00] things. Oh, the language is, like, I was, my wife was in that room and we, I was reading, finishing it yesterday, and all through this were these magnificent turns of phrase and then we’re like five pages from the end and all of a sudden he just turns a corner and writes 120-word sentence.

And I was like, it was like watching somebody do a bunch of magic tricks and then at the end they make their house disappear. It was like, what is, who is this man? And so I’m really fascinated with Herlihy now, and I’ve been looking into more of his. He wrote All Fall Down, be wrote the, what is it, Baby Filbertson, the collection of fiction. He was so good and then he just stopped. Anyway, as, from a, from I, we haven’t talked much about literary writing, but which is not subject to many of the things that we’ve talked about, frankly. But boy, if you’re a writer or you love prose and you’re listening to this, stop now. Order Midnight Cowboy by Herlihy and thank me later.

Elizabeth: This is, just in case folks are younger than we are—

Mike Long: Yes.

Elizabeth: They might not know the film, award—

Mike Long: [00:59:00] Oh, the film is brilliant.

Elizabeth: It’s brilliant. It’s, oh, ‘70—

Mike Long: ‘67.

Elizabeth: ‘67. It’s got Michael—

Mike Long: Or ’68.

Elizabeth: —John Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

Mike Long: Yes. Directed by Schlesinger, his first—

Elizabeth: Yeah, so it’s an extraordinary—

Mike Long: Coming off a failed film, Schlesinger.

Elizabeth: I think it was first, like, X-rated film.

Mike Long: Yeah. And X meant just this, ‘cause this is a thing, I was a big fan of the film for many years, and I finally read the book. The X didn’t mean that it was pornographic, it meant that they simply couldn’t rate it because of various things, usually pornography. 

Elizabeth: It’s about a, John Voight plays a midnight cowboy. He’s a male prostitute.

Mike Long: He’s a naive man, perhaps on the spectrum, who goes to New York to, he’s decided that he’s going to make a living servicing these women he imagines will pay for his administrations and, and of course he couldn’t be more wrong. Yeah. And in the book, there’s a lot more going on. And there’s a whole, there’s, the movie’s just the last half of the book.

Elizabeth: Hoffman’s character’s the Ratso Rizzo guy.

Mike Long: That’s right. [01:00:00] Yes, Enrico Rizzo. Ratso, yes. Ratso.

Elizabeth: Ratso, yeah. Amazing film. I have to go—

Mike Long: It’s a wonderful film.

Michael: I hope our listeners read the book ‘cause I had never even thought that there was a book.

Mike Long: Yeah, I didn’t know Herlihy.

Michael: I knew the film and I just didn’t know the—

Mike Long: I didn’t know Herlihy. And he’s largely forgotten, but, wow, he was a major force. And everything he published was Paris Review in the early fifties. This guy was all over the place. He was so good. Oh, man.

Elizabeth: Well, speaking of so good, you have been such a great interviewee. Thank you so much for your time, Mike. Is there anything that is coming up for you? Facilitating or consulting or other courses you’re gonna be offering? Tell our listeners how they can find out more about you, your website, your books.

Mike Long: Sure. You can order them, you can go to moleculeofmore.com to read about the book or you can go to Amazon and order the thing. We’d love to have you pick up a copy. There’s a sequel coming out next spring, I hope, to the Molecule of More, about how to apply this to your life. You can go to my [01:01:00] website, mikelongonline.com and read about what I do. And if you’re looking for somebody to train your staff, your writers, your com staff, or, hell, if you’re a writer and you just wanna talk, reach out. We’ll correspond a little bit. I just like to go where I can help.

Elizabeth: Fabulous. Once again, our listener, I mean our guest, once again, our guest has been Michael Long, who is a man of many hats.

Mike Long: Jack of all trades and master of none.

Elizabeth: No, a master of many trades. Anyway, thank you, Mike, so much for—

Michael: Thank you.

Elizabeth: —generously sharing your time with us and insights with creative and dialogue. This has been fabulous.

Mike Long: Thank you.

Elizabeth: Tremendous thanks to all our listeners. To those of you who are free subscribers, please consider becoming paid subscribers so that Creativists in Dialogue can continue bringing you insightful conversations about creativity from Washington, DC and beyond. Thanks.

Special shout out to Creativists in Dialogue’s production team: Audio engineer Elliot Lanes, social media manager Erinn Dumas of Dumas83, and transcription editor Morgan Musselman. Thank you all.

For more information about Creativists in Dialogue, please visit creativists.substack.com or our Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn pages. To learn more about our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or rmichaeloliver.com. This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and subscribers like you. Thanks.

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