Writers’ Desk: Future Library

Trees into books ... eventually.

Trees into books … eventually.

Because there is apparently no end to the inventive riches of Scandinavian literary culture, we now have the Future Library Project.

They are planting a forest of 1,000 pine trees in Norway north of Oslo that will be harvested a century in the future and used to print an anthology of writing. In the manner of a literary time capsule, the pieces for the anthology are being written now at the rate of one per year and held in secret until publication in 2114.

Margaret Atwood, who knows a few things about future writing, is the first contributor, with a piece about which only the title is known: Scribbler Moon. According to Atwood:

There’s something magical about it … It’s like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they’ll wake up, come to life again. It’s a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years.

Fellow quasi-futurist David Mitchell (Cloud AtlasBone Clocks) is next up.

It’s a fascinating thing to contemplate, writing something that won’t be read until well after one is dead. The advantage? No worries about reviews. The downside? No adulation.

Still, it’s worth thinking about the next time you sit down to your next writing assignment. Pick up a book from the 1910s and see how much the language and underlying societal assumptions have changed since then. Then, taking that into consideration, start writing with an eye for timelessness. Who knows? Somebody may pick it up in 2114, on a screen or yellowed paper, and you want to make sure that they will know what you are talking about.

Writer’s Desk: Stephen King on His Muse

Calliope -- she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)

Calliope — she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)

There are writers who like to talk about their muse. They don’t have to necessarily be thinking about one of the classical nine Greek muses, just trying to personify that indefinable thing which is inspiration. It’s an easy thing to wax poetic about because, well, most writers don’t truly understand this thing that we do.

Stephen King has his own way of describing his muse, when talking about his writing room:

My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That’s the other level, and that’s the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it’s a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level — the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread — fades even more. This is a real thing I’m talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it’s good, it’s better than the best pill.

Is that helpful to somebody struggling with the blank page? No, of course not. What’s helpful is how King ends the piece:

My muse may visit. She may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does.

Meaning that being a writer is somewhat like being a Boy Scout. Always be prepared.

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.

Writer’s Desk: Necessary Tools

handmaidstale1People don’t often think about what they need to write. Just a great idea and 10,000 hours, right? They don’t realize that writing requires tools, always. And not the ones that all those websites have been trying to sell you, either.

See what Margaret Atwood has to say:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s different for every writer. Maybe you’re one of those people born knowing the right word. If so, chuck the thesaurus and move on.

But she’s right about the no-whining thing. Get on with it. Writing still beats doing everything else out there. Except maybe velociraptor wrangler; that’d be cool.

Writer’s Desk: Harper Lee on Who to Ignore

Harper Lee, c. 1962.

Harper Lee, c. 1962.

There’s a lot of education that can go into being a writer. All those workshops, retreats, seminars, and conferences; there’s enough of them that just taking in a small percentage could be a full-time job.

There’s also the less-formal education, that involves just listening to what other people think of what you’ve done. That’s always necessary, because writing is nothing without its audience.

But it matters who you listen to. Not every opinion matters, after all. Harper Lee knew that. Listen to this, from one of her letters (written after To Kill a Mockingbird was published) that are being auctioned off next week:

…one is not supposed to be aware that critics, reviewers, and English teachers exist.

All those people have their place, of course. But their beliefs should probably only be taken seriously in moderation. Especially by a writer who’s just trying to write.

Writer’s Desk: Good for Nothing

artweek1There’s an old joke about how in Irish families, the boy who can’t throw a ball, well, he’s the priest.

A similar weeding-out procedure is suggested by this line from Rachel Kushner’s brilliant 2013 novel The Flamethrowers:

That’s what artists are, his father said, those who are useless for anything else. That might seem like an insult, he said, but it wasn’t.

So, in other words, run with it.

Bookmark: Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves’

In 'Seveneves,' this blows up ... and everything changes. (NASA)

In ‘Seveneves,’ this blows up … and everything changes. (NASA)

Last week, Neal Stephenson released his latest novel, a big-thinking plot about the end of the world and a possible new start for the human race. Seveneves is another doorstopper of a piece, so in that sense right in line with just about everything he’s written since the 1990s. In many other ways, however—particularly in being a return to full-fledged science fiction and also curiously (for him) devoid of humor—this is an entirely new direction for the author of Snow Crash.

seveneves-coverMy take on the book and the arc of Stephenson’s career can be read at The Millions.

You can read the first couple dozen pages of Seveneves at Stephenson’s site here. This is how it starts:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero…