Literary Birthday: Isaac Asimov

The first works published by Isaac Asimov (born today in 1920, a date now marked as National Science Fiction Day) both appeared when he was just 19 and could not have been more different.

One was his Columbia University thesis, “The Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of Tyrosinase During Its Catalysis of the Aerobic Oxidation of Catechol.”

The other was “Marooned Off Vesta,” published in the pulp science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories (which a young Asimov had read at the newsstand at his family’s candy store, despite his father’s disapproval).

Asimov received a doctorate in chemistry but writing proved more enticing. He ultimately published 400 to 500 books (accounts vary). Some were nonfiction works on science, math, history, and literature. But many of the rest were science fiction tales like his now iconic “I, Robot” and “Foundation” series, exactly the kind of thing his father had once tutted over his reading.

Writer’s Desk: Find the Time

John Cheever had a fairly simple formula for writing. He explained it once when meeting a wonderstruck Michael Chabon:

Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. 

For Cheever, though, this meant there was little room for anything else. Children? Cheever called them “notorious thieves of time.”

Of course, Chabon went on to father four children and publish 14 books, including masterpieces like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Wonder Boys. So he must have figured out some way to budget his time.

Writer’s Desk: Art is Not Therapy

Art Spiegelman created some of the greatest literature of the 20th century by translating his and his family’s history into indelible art.

At the same time, he thinks it is more complicated than simply putting one’s thoughts, worries, and pain on the page. As he told Vulture:

Therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit. There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism…

There can be nothing braver than coming clean in your writing.

But bravery is just the starting point.

Reader’s Corner: Literary Datebook

If you are looking for a holiday gift for a literary-minded friend, how about a fancy desk calendar?

Check out the 2021 Barnes & Noble Desk Diary. Besides being a handsome hardcover edition with David Levine art throughout, it also has a wealth of short pieces about authors written by yours truly tied to the month or year a particular writer was born. There are also some longer profiles, like this one for the great Ursula K. Le Guin:

Get ’em now while they last.

Writer’s Desk: Follow the Scent

Here is Louise Glück telling Poets & Writers about her process:

When I’m trying to put a poem or a book together, I feel like a tracker in the forest following a scent, tracking only step to step. It’s not as though I have plot elements grafted onto the walls elaborating themselves. Of course, I have no idea what I’m tracking, only the conviction that I’ll know it when I see it.

One might imagine it’s actually better for the writer when they have no idea what they will find.

Writer’s Desk: Use Your Memories

In his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” Haruki Murakami talks about his memories as a capacious warehouse filled with odds and ends which he can draw upon for his fiction:

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story…

He goes on to evoke Steven Spielberg’s E.T.:

There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player … [E.T.] manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing.

Pack your head with memories and ransack them at will. Don’t worry if they do not seem to make sense together at first. They will.

Writer’s Desk: Say It Out Loud. Again.

The great and ever-acerbic Martin Amis has a new book out, Inside Story, which appears to be pretty juicy and part of that popular new sub-genre of quasi-nonfiction “novels”. (He also appears in the great new documentary The Meaning of Hitler which is showing in some festivals now and should be tracked down with all speed.)

Whether he’s expounding on tyrants or the cynical complexities of the London smart set, Amis delivers sharp prose that has reads as though it has been turned over on a lathe until every rough or unfinished particle has been removed. So if he has a bit of advice to provide, it is worth listening to. Here is something he offered at the Chicago Humanities Festival:

Saying the sentence, self-vocalizing it in your head until there’s nothing wrong with it.

If it does not sound right when you say it aloud, it probably will not read right on the page.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Tell Them Everything

In this interview with the New York Public Library, Pico Iyer explains why it is best for writers to retain some sense of mystery:

Let this book hover somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Let me give the reader no clue about how to categorize it before she begins or even after she’s finished. Let me put the reader on alert, on edge, not knowing what she’s going to get into.

If your reader has no idea what you are about to do, then everything can be a surprise.

Writer’s Desk: Getting Past the Fear

25 years ago, Bonnie Friedman sat down and let all the things that stymied her as a writer just flow out. Her guide, Writing Past Dark, is out now in an anniversary edition.

LitHub talked to Friedman about what led to that book:

There were a lot of things I did that made me suffer as a writer, and I wanted to learn why I did them. For instance, I routinely sickened myself with envy in bookstores. And, I was so afraid of getting right to work in the morning that I did a bunch of chores first and set everything as straight as possible before sitting down, by which point I was tired and there wasn’t enough time left. Also, ambient sounds seemed so interruptive that, even in a frigid Massachusetts winter, I set an air conditioner on my coffee table and turned it on for its enveloping roar. And if a short story received more than two rejections I chucked it forever into a bottom bin, ashamed…

Be proud of your work. It helps.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Town’

In Shaun Prescott’s Kafka-in-the-outback novel, a writer comes to a nowhere town to write on a book that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in or chance of finishing. Meanwhile, a giant hole to nowhere opens up in the middle of town. Things get weird.

My review of The Town was published in Rain Taxi Review of Books:

Showing up in the nameless outback town without any past or future direction, the narrator describes the place in sanded-down lines that emphasize its dullness and discontent. Chain stores and lassitude rule the place, as does the sense that everything is dwindling and collapsing. He gets a job at a Woolworth’s, finds an apartment, and plots out his book about the disappearing towns in “the Central West region of New South Wales” (a phrase whose repetition eventually brings on the type of cold chuckle one gets from a David Lynch film)…

You can read an excerpt here.

Reader’s Corner: ‘A Peculiar Indifference’

My review of Elliott Currie’s A Peculiar Indifference, a sobering book with a very provocative conclusion, ran at PopMatters:

An academic sociologist and criminologist who serves up tranches of data to support his points, Currie lets numbers, rather than rhetoric, do the work. And what his numbers show is a crisis with no signs of abating. Especially as long as the country turns a blind eye to it…

You can read an excerpt here.

Writer’s Desk: Be Brave

When Sylvia Plath was attending Smith College in the 1950s and writing furiously in her journals about the kind of life (writing life, to be very specific) that she wanted for herself, she was absolutely determined to better herself. The entries are filled with orders to herself (“I will learn shorthand”, “I will begin reading Joyce”) and plenty of self-criticism.

At the same time, she is also trying to give herself the courage to succeed. Part of that involved trying to overcome her fears. Which appear to be mostly the same as any other writer.

Along the way, she delivers this sharp little apercu:

Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.

The more commonly quoted part comes right after: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. While this is certainly true, it does not have the same snap.

Anything can be written about. Just go out and do it. Take from life everything you can for material. But do not be afraid to make up whatever you have to.

Writer’s Desk: Meet a Stranger for Coffee

Like many performers, Maria Bamford is often stricken with insecurities about her own work. That can make it difficult to write, much less perform.

But unlike most writers, Bamford has a unique process for working out her material:

In 2018, she began issuing periodic invitations, on Twitter, for fans who live in cities where she is appearing to meet her for coffee and listen to her run through her set before she performs. 

Is it scary to have a total stranger critique your writing before anybody else in the world sees it? Absolutely.

Is it more scary than having somebody you know critique it? Absolutely not.

If they are willing, talk to strangers about your work. Generally, they’re nice about it.

Writer’s Desk: Say It Clean

In his landmark work From Dawn to Decadence, historian Jacques Barzun has this to say about how the readability of written English can be under threat:

…the resulting obstacles to good prose were: a vocabulary full of technical terms and their jargon imitations, an excess of voguish metaphors, and the preference for long abstract words denoting general ideas, in place of short concrete ones pointing to acts and objects.

When it doubt, say it plain. Simplicity above all.

(h/t: Tablet)

Dept. of Self-Promotion: ‘What Would Keanu Do?’

Yep, it’s that time of year. Getting close to Christmas shopping season (well, for stores at least it is, actually shoppers won’t be paying attention for another couple months). What, oh what, to get that Keanu Reeves fan in or tangentially connected to your life?

May I suggest my latest book What Would Keanu Do? Personal Philosophy and Awe-Inspiring Advice from the Patron Saint of Whoa?

It was conjured up by the good people at MediaLab Books, who then very kindly asked me to produce some verbiage about the life lessons that one can take from the cinematic oeuvre of one Keanu Reeves. This entailed looking very very closely at everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Dangerous Liaisons and Toy Story 4 to derive the deeper wisdom of our most curiously Zen movie performer.

Many gems were uncovered. I was given license to re-explore the greatness of A Scanner Darkly, for instance. On the other hand, I also underwent the unspeakable experience of rewatching the second and third Matrix movies.

What Would Keanu Do? goes on sale today. Check it out.