Writer’s Desk: Alone Time

Is there anybody here who can write in a loud room full of people? There are people out there who can somehow accomplish that feat; your average journalist, say, who doesn’t have the luxury of going off to find a cozy tea shop with decent coffee and good Wi-Fi. They’ve got 45 minutes to pound out that 1,100-word piece on the newest unemployment numbers or a listicle on the month’s top 10 most cringe-inducing GOP candidate flubs, and a deadline waits for no man or woman.

Them1Prose is a different matter. Because that’s what we’re generally talking about when we say writing, yes? Those of us who toil on both sides of the fiction divide don’t waste too much time worrying about process and idea-mongering when it’s time to work on the nonfiction material. It’s just as much work, and frequently just as much artistry. But nonfiction writing is simply different. Not to get into fuzzy notions of the muse, but one usually doesn’t need to be struck by inspiration to knock out 500 words on a new misery memoir or 1,500 on what the popularity of Game of Thrones says about the impending collapse of Western hegemony. You just need to find a way in and then how to put all the building blocks together. That’s a vast oversimplification, of course, but it generally holds.

Prose (or verse, assumedly), though, is a creature of a different hue. And it’s not an easy thing to do with others around. Joyce Carol Oates said this to Salon on the question of creativity requiring being alone:

Probably nothing serious or worthwhile can be accomplished without one’s willingness to be alone for sustained periods of time, which is not to say that one must live alone, obsessively. Ultimately, any art is intended for an audience — a community. In this way, the artist/writer is linked to the community and is only temporarily “alone.”

So buckle up, close the door, put on the headphones, whatever you have to do. Don’t worry. The world will still be there when you get back.

Babel Tower: Of Phanariots, Googlebots, and Infidelity

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire's dragomen, whose work as translators of the "infidels" language gave birth to the word "infidelity."

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire’s dragomen, whose work as translators of the “infidels” language gave birth to the word “infidelity.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s superb article “Is Translation a Language or Math Problem?” has many things to recommend it, most particularly this aside on the roots of the word “infidelity”:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of “infidelity” has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

Later in the piece, Lewis-Kraus limns what happens when engineers obsessed with using brute-force computation for online translation tools run up against the vagaries of literary nuance:

One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of “Don Quixote.” It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate,” what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept. All the Sancho Panzas, all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.

Nothing wrong with Google Translate, of course. But let’s hope that translating literature is left in the hands of people who, well, like literature and acknowledge the importance of linguistic subtlety. You wouldn’t hire a Ph.D in comparative lit to beta-test your server network, now would you?

Department of Media: 2014’s Best Magazine Stories

(Library of Congress)

(Library of Congress)

The winners of the 2015 Magazine Awards (the rather unfortunately named Ellies) have been announced. The New Yorker took home a few as usual, and Vogue won for publication of the year.

More interestingly, awards are also given out for best individual articles; here are some links:

Writer’s Corner: The Patterson Factory

James Patterson is seen at times as more machine than writer. There’s good reason for this. His advertising background; those couple dozen credited co-writers; a happy malleability when it comes to genre (romance, YA, mystery, whatever); multiple books a year; nearly $100 million in annual revenue.

thomasberryman-coverAll that being said, it’s helpful to remember that at one point even Patterson was a wannabe, just another unpublished novelist trying to get his book out there. From Todd Purdum’s profile for Vanity Fair:

His first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, about a Nashville newspaperman on a murderer’s trail, was rejected by 31 publishers before Little, Brown published it, in 1976. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, but sold only about 10,000 copies…

Selling 10,000 copies of anything would be a dream come true for most authors. Still, success as a writer is never guaranteed. Even for the man who accounted for one of every 26 hardcover novels sold in the U.S. during 2013.

Writer’s Corner: Novel Writing Month Has Already Started

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

Every year, a small but intensely committed band of writers try to ensure that November is known for something besides candy-hangover and Christmas dread. November is also known as National Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the dedicated), to at least a few.

The basic idea is to write a 50,000-word manuscript in just 30 days. Last year, over 310,000 people apparently took part. It’s more than just an idea, the NaNoWriMo group offers writing spaces and the occasional pep talk, as well as ways to get together with your fellow scriveners.

Maybe you’ve got a novel in you, maybe you don’t. Either way, churning out 50,000 words in a month (that’s about 7 double-spaced pages a day) will at least give you an idea of whether you have what it takes. Better get started; after all, it’s already the 2nd.

Quote of the Day: Celebrity ‘Journalism’

From the always perspicacious P.J. O’Rourke, who wrote recently on the through-the-looking-glass experience that is reading an entire issue of People, or even US Weekly:

The formula for celebrity journalism is to mix schadenfreude with celebration at about the ratio of gin to vermouth in a dry martini.

Quote of the Day: Men Don’t Read

Men. Reading.

Men. Reading.

Depressing, provocative, or just plain true, here’s something to consider from Bryan Goldberg; he made millions off co-founding the incredibly popular crowd-sourced sports site Bleacher Report and is now trying to do the same for women-centered writing (whatever that is) at a site called Bustle. According to Goldberg:

Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read … When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’? My girlfriend always tells me about these books she’s reading, and I don’t even see her reading the book! Where does this book live?

Apparently it doesn’t occur to Goldberg to just pick up a book and find out what this fascinating and mysterious hobby is all about.

But in any case, he is not wrong in the aggregate, as any bookstore employee can tell you: Women buy books, men don’t. There is the occasional squawk of disagreement on this issue and plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but mostly, the numbers bear it out.

A 2007 story from NPR reported that even among avid readers, the typical woman read nine books a year, compared to five for men. Men make up just 20 percent of fiction reader. It’s hard to believe that those numbers have changed much in the past six years.

Back in 2005, novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement, the amazing new Sweet Tooth) tried an experiment. He and his son went around a London park distributing books for free. The result?

Every young woman we approached – in central London practically everyone seems young – was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, “Read that, read that, read that …” before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.

The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. “Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.” Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.

“Frowned in suspicion, or distaste.” And remember, this was before every man had a smart phone to obsessively check up on sports scores.