Illustrator: Ashley Siebels
Dramatic career pivots aren’t usually prompted by mail-order porn novels. But Andrew Offutt isn’t an ordinary person.
After noticing the poor quality of writing in a book he ordered in the 1960s, Offutt hurled it across the room and announced to his wife that he could do better.
She asked, “why don’t you?” Thus began his switch from insurance salesperson to pornographer.
His son, Chris Offutt, recently published a book about the experience of growing up with a father who wrote porn and the aftermath of his death. My Father, the Pornographer, shows Chris’ own prowess as a writer while painting a vivid portrait of his father, the man who raised the quality of American pornography.
While he is known as a science-fiction writer, pornography was Offutt’s passion both in his work and personal life. Offutt’s work may not be high literature, yet it is undeniable that his sheer output, dedication, and creativity are almost unrivaled. In his lifetime, he wrote 420 novels, including Bondage Babe. Even today, there are at least 30 that remain unpublished.
What interests me most is not his subject but rather his phenomenal productivity as a writer and what the lessons we can draw from this. My Father, the Pornographer, is a rare example of an intimate portrait of a writer and reveals interesting insights into his creative process.
Offutt’s writing process involved what Cal Newport calls “deep work” — extended periods of intense focus. The ability to focus on one task is a universal factor among the most creative, productive people I know and Offutt took it to an extreme level.
Offutt’s writing process was old school — no facegram or twitchat distractions here. Rather, he would begin by brainstorming a few ideas before launching into the first chapter. Next, Offutt created an outline of the rest of the book which he followed meticulously. In each sitting, he produced 20 to 40 pages of longhand writing. After the initial draft, he transcribed it on to his typewriter, editing along the way.
Writing 20 to 40 pages in a single sitting is a phenomenal feat — that’s up to 10,000 words in normal handwriting and probably more for Offutt’s tiny scrawl. In comparison, it usually takes me a day to write a smaller, say 2,000 words, article on Farnam Street Blog.
By writing an outline before commencing, he was able to diminish the lengthy editing rigmarole that consumers many authors’ time. His personal record was 94 pages in a single day — nearly 24,000 words. This depth of focus and organized process are doubtless responsible for his prolific output.
(As a side note, since improving my ability to focus, my output has 5X’ed).
Offutt wrote his pornographic novels under 17 different names, mostly as “John Cleve.” He claimed that Cleve was his alter ego, and the other 16 were merely his pseudonyms, not Offutt’s.
Living in a conservative community, this anonymity gave Offutt total freedom. He could express himself as he wished, without the work being linked to his quiet rural family life. The alter ego, Cleve, had his own wardrobe, signature, and stationary. At conventions, Offutt would change into Cleve’s attire and speak to his loyal fanbase as him.
I can hear you wondering how anonymity helps people produce more. Let me tell you. When Farnam Street was anonymous, getting things done was easy. No one wanted my time or attention. Now I get hundreds of requests a day for everything from speeches to advisory board opportunities.
More than many of us believe our behavior is influenced by our environment, which is perhaps why many writers go to great lengths to find the perfect place to work. For Offutt, secrecy was a necessary element. He worked in a second-floor office which the whole family was forbidden to enter.
This seclusion made him happy. A year before his death, he described himself as the happiest man alive. He enjoyed being alone in his study with only his writing to focus on. Chris recalls that his father’s best friend how Eric Stanton, a fetish artist whom he collaborated with for 25 years. Yet they had met just once — illustrative of the extent to which Offutt valued his solitude.
Inspiration and Immersion
In a short autobiographical note in one book he wrote:
“Offutt researches with gusto, both in and out of books, having — briefly and painfully, he says — worn chainmail and helm and wielded sword.”
Upon clearing out his father’s study, Chris found decades worth of pornographic material of every description — magazines, cards, antique erotic art, postcards and hundreds of books.
Offutt had immersed himself in his work with obsessive dedication. Inspiration came naturally as a result of this intense involvement and environment. Offutt lived and breathed pornography. Remaining surrounded by it in his studio for 10 to 12 hours a day, he could have rapid ideas.
This is an inescapable element of his productivity. An enormous output requires enormous dedication. There are no shortcuts in this respect. If you want to be great at something you have to be a fanatic.
Whilst many writers sit around awaiting inspiration, Offutt worked in a methodical, disciplined manner. To maintain his output, he developed a unique portfolio production technique.
Offutt would create portfolios of material to be used in books.
These ranged from sentences to entire scenes. By keeping them in organized folders divided by topic and theme, he could quickly assemble a book in a month, minimum. His catalogs would include pages of synonyms (such as 150 words for pain) and descriptions of body parts or sexual acts.
Chris recalls his father sitting in front of the television at night with a clipboard, inventing descriptions of landscapes, weather and visual details based on what he saw. Chris describes this system as reminiscent of a factory assembly line, where parts are put together to form a car.
Parkinson’s law states that tasks expand to fit the time allocated to them. The implications are clear. People usually become far more productive when their time is constrained.
In Offutt’s case, working under extreme pressure played a large role in his speed. The family relied on his work for economic support as his book contracts did not involve advances. The faster he wrote, the more money they had. With four children, a mortgage and orthodontist bills, switching from insurance to pornography made speed essential. It was a brave choice to pivot from a respectable, secure job to a controversial, fickle creative career.
What separated Offutt from many other people who make that change is the methodical way he worked. He was, as he described himself, an artist but he worked like a machine. Indeed, many of his 17 pseudonyms were simply a means of working for multiple publishers, without them knowing he wrote for their competition.
Offutt’s wife, Jodie, was an enthusiastic supporter of his work. She assisted him in many ways, notably by typing out his final drafts.
Chris recalls that she would sometimes begin typing up a book, even before it was even finished. And when the pair attended conventions and Offutt dressed as his alter ego, Cleve, Jodie would change her attire to match his. Chris describes this in the book:
“My parents cultivated a special con wardrobe… Mom wore short skirts and low-cut blouses that zipped up the front with no bra, high boots, and tight belts. John Cleve wore a long djellaba with nothing underneath, while mom wore a floor-length polyester gown. To complement Dad’s leather-and-denim leisure suit, Mom had a leather miniskirt. My parents were a compelling pair, and I was awestruck by the figures they cut.”
A supportive partner is a common component of the lives of many productive people. By outsourcing simpler tasks to Jodie, Offutt had more time to focus on the creative elements of his work.
A lot of people are unable to look at a man like Offutt and learn from him. They instantly turn off any openness to learning from his method of production when they hear he wrote porn novels. Yet, we don’t have to read his books to learn from his process and methodical approach. Whether avoiding distractions, being conscious of our environments and how they impact us, or developing an portfolio system we can all learn from the King of Porn.
This article originally appeared on Medium.