Writing “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor”

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorMy new book about Stoicism comes out soon so I thought I’d say a bit about the process of writing it.  (Sometimes people ask me how I ended up writing these books or what the process is like.)  The book’s called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.  You can pre-order it now from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores.  (Incidentally, I’m writing this blog post during a layover at Frankfurt airport on the way from Athens to Toronto – I thought I’d try to do something constructive with the time!)

Let’s start at the beginning…  When I was a little boy I really wanted to be a writer.  At primary school in Scotland, when I was about ten years old, we used to write short stories.  The kids would get to vote for which ones the wanted to hear each week and the “winner” would stand at the front of the class and read their creation aloud.  Mine were quite popular so the other kids kept asking me to do more.  It was kind of addictive.  And I wasn’t much good at anything else, to be honest.

Somewhere along the way I lost interest in writing, though.  Or rather I became more interested in reading philosophy.  Then I wanted to become a counsellor or a psychotherapist.  So after finishing my degree in philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, I moved to London and before long started working as a counsellor in high schools and with a youth drugs project.  After a few years I became a psychotherapist with a private clinical practice in Harley Street.  Then one day someone called me out of the blue and asked me to run a training course for other therapists.  So I wound up as a trainer and for about fifteen years, in addition to treating clients, I ran a training school in London teaching other therapists, counsellors, and life coaches.

I’ve been studying, writing about, and talking about Stoicism for roughly twenty years as well.  I’ve written five books, on philosophy and psychotherapy, and dozens of articles in magazines and journals.  The books were all quite different.  First of all, I edited the complete writings of James Braid, the Scot who invented hypnotism.  My first book as an author, though, was just an attempt to make sense out of hundreds of pages of notes I’d compiled about Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).  (At one point my Psion computer died and I completely lost years of notes – poof!)  Then I was asked to write a self-help book on emotional resilience for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series, which follows quite a strictly organized format.  That was good but it didn’t really allow me to write in my own style.  I also wrote a book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness for the same series.  And a manual for the evidence-based practice of clinical hypnosis, based on a cognitive-behavioural approach.  I put a lot of work into that but it wasn’t the sort of book that I really wanted to write either.

The first book proposal that I ever wrote was for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which the publisher turned down twice.  I asked them what sort of books they wanted people to write and they replied saying they wanted a book called The Philosophy of CBT.  So that’s how my first book (as an author) came about.  (Incidentally, you hear a lot about authors struggling to get their first book deal but publishers are sometimes begging for people to write books on certain subjects and can’t find anyone to do it.)  Over a decade later, though, I still felt the Roman Emperor title was good and had a ring to it.  So I decided to write it.  There are already several good introductions to Stoicism and books on Stoicism as self-help.  I wanted to write about Stoicism but it had to be a different sort of book.

Since she was about three or four years old, I’ve been telling my daughter, Poppy, stories about Greek heroes and philosophers.  I realized that other people liked these stories too.  In the ancient world, philosophical wisdom was often communicated in the form of anecdotes about the lives of famous philosophers such as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic.  For example, we have a treasure trove of this stuff in a book called The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius.  So I decided to write a book about Stoicism that focused more on stories about the lives of philosophers.

Marcus Aurelius is the Stoic about whom we know the most.  That’s simply because he was a Roman emperor.  There are several histories (Cassius Dio, Herodian, the Historia Augusta) that survive today and describe his reign, and a few other minor sources.  However, I found it frustrating that modern biographies of Marcus didn’t really try to interpret his life in relation to his philosophy, which we know so much about from his private notes The Meditations.  So I finally set about writing a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which describes events from Marcus Aurelius’ life and links them to concepts and practices from Stoic philosophy.  I also drew on my training in psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy  (CBT), to help me explain how these could help people today.

So how did I actually go about writing the book?  What was the process like?  Well, I’d already been researching this subject for about twenty years: gatherings notes and writing shorter pieces, giving talks, etc.  I began by writing two sample chapters based on major events in Marcus’ life to see if I could make them work as stories: the Antonine Plague and the civil war with Avidius Cassius.  I wanted to stick as closely as possible to the historical information available but didn’t want to spoil a good story.  So I inserted pieces of dialogue or minor details where necessary and in cases where there’s some ambiguity in the historical account I’d settle on one interpretation rather than disrupting the narrative by worrying about which was right.  My goal wasn’t to “do history” but to inspire readers and provide them with one possible account of Marcus’ life that would help them visualize his philosophy more clearly as a way of life.  So I’d describe these as works of historical or biographical fiction, albeit so faithful to the surviving Roman histories that they’re probably about 99% history and about 1% fiction.

I also compiled a huge document organizing all the key information about Marcus’ life that could potentially be used to write the book.   I planned everything in (too much) detail.  Then I started again from scratch, confident that I had all the key facts, that I could now picture the overall structure of the book, and that I could weave the events into stories, which I’d describe as a series of historical vignettes about major events in Marcus’ life.  I reread The Meditations several times in different translations, brushing up on my (pretty sketchy) ancient Greek and studying the parallel Greek and English texts to tease out subtle connotations where possible that would complement my narrative.  Sometimes people ask me how many times I’ve read The Meditations.  I’ve honestly no idea; I’ve lost count – lots and lots of times.  I also read all the available English biographies of Marcus Aurelius’ life and made detailed notes on anything that could be incorporated into the book I was planning.  (One of my favourite books about Marcus is an obscure 18th century French work of historical fiction called The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius.)

I find it difficult to write at home so I’d often go away for a week or more and stay in the countryside or anywhere I could focus completely on my research and writing.  I try to minimise distractions so I’d eat very simple food each day that didn’t require much preparation, e.g., boiled eggs, peanuts, coffee and apples.  Sometimes I booked into AirBNBs that were actually just a fifteen minute or so walk from where I live because I found that being in another environment helped me focus even if it were just a few streets from home.  It also gave my girlfriend a break because I’m pretty sure she was fed up hearing about the Antonine Plague and intricate details about Roman military formations.

I find that after months of writing it becomes difficult to concentrate when reading through a chapter for the zillionth time.  So I would print each chapter and read it aloud from the hard copy.   For some reason, I find that timing myself reading or writing with a stopwatch also helps remind me to stay focused.  When the final draft of the manuscript is nearly ready I like to read the entire thing cover to cover to make sure that the whole book is coherent and there’s no unintentional repetition.  Sadl, though, that’s beyond my ability in terms of concentration.  So I paid a local bartender who’s interested in philosophy, Maria, to read it to me while I made notes on a second paper copy.  After each chapter, she’d also silently mark up a printout to indicate which parts she felt were good and which might potentially be removed.  Her comments were very helpful.  (Sometimes I’d even read a chapter to our dog just to trick myself into concentrating for a bit longer, although Mookie wasn’t able to offer very helpful feedback.) My editor and agent also helped a lot with advice and feedback, of course.

I’ve practised self-hypnosis for many years, since I was about fifteen years old.  So I made a recording that I would listen to for twenty minutes each day, designed to help me become more focused on writing and to view the book from different perspectives to help my creativity, etc.  I don’t think I’d have managed to write this book without using that method.

Regarding the content, I wanted to begin the book with something dramatic.  After some initial thought, I realized, paradoxically, that I should open with the death of Marcus Aurelius.  Then I could return to his childhood and work through the major events of his life as if he were remembering them in subsequent chapters.  That created a problem, though.  How would the book end?  I started writing before I knew the answer to that question because I felt sure that somehow a solution would present itself along the way.  And it did.  At least, I found a way to end the book that satisfied me as the author.  Spoiler alert: The final chapter is written in a very different style from the rest of the book.  It was actually intended to be read aloud or listened to in an audio recording.  It’s intentionally written to resemble a guided meditation exercise.  I read it aloud many times until I was completely satisfied with how it sounded.  It weaves together many different Stoic ideas from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, as well as a few from other sources.

So I hope you enjoy what I’ve written.  It was a long journey.  At times I felt quite exhausted but I’m glad I made it to the end.  I’m confident that I’ve created something very different from anything I’ve ever written before.  And anyone can read this book.  If you’re completely new to Stoicism it will provide you with a compelling introduction, and inspire you, I hope, in the way that only the life of a great philosopher, like Marcus, really can.  If you’ve read lots of books on Stoicism I’m sure you’ll find this is an original perspective and that it contains many details about Marcus’ life and his philosophy that aren’t well-known.  I know from my research that people who read this book find that they’re able to get a lot more out of reading The Meditations.  It makes me very satisfied to think that a book which has already benefited so many people so profoundly could be introduced to the reader afresh by exposing new layers of meaning.

If you like the sound of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius you can pre-order it now from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores.  So buy a copy if you want to encourage me to go through the whole process again next year by writing another book!

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