Writer’s Desk: Find a Safe Space

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpegThe life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.

The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:

The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…

Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Just Write Your Story, Live Your Story

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(New York Public Library)

Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, once said that to her writing and reading can be acts of generosity:

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself … I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by…

As a result, she views writing as a fully immersive experience:

The moment a character becomes real to me, and their experience becomes real to me, the writing itself almost feels like method acting. When I’m writing a story, which takes me a year or more, I can feel my character living with me—they’re responding to whatever funny, familial, or social situation I’m in, and I think about their responses constantly. This feeling of living alongside a character is one of the most gratifying things about writing, and definitely one of the reasons I do it…

Don’t just imagine your characters. Live them.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Ballot Box’

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Call it karma. The day after the pundit class wrapped itself in feverish discussion of Iowa’s Democratic primary and a malfunctioning vote-tabulating app (the hanging chad of the new decade), my new book was published.

The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History has one of those self-explanatory titles. You get the gist.

It’s available now from Barnes & Noble (exclusive hardcover or ebook) and Amazon (ebook).

I published a related piece on Medium: “Writing About Elections in the Age of Trump.”

Writer’s Desk: Have No Fear

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Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In the speech that he gave accepting the Christopher Hitchens award, George Packer noted how he and Hitch didn’t always get along and actually disagreed quite violently on the Iraq War. Hitch thought it was a noble cause, while Packer (as covered in his incredible book The Assassin’s Gate) knew from on-the-ground reporting that it was a disaster. Nevertheless, their friendship persisted:

We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher…

Packer went on to talk about Hitch’s bravery and freedom from fear:

Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade…

Telling how things appear to you, and in the way that feels most right for you and your voice, is the only way to write.

A scared writer is a terrible writer.

Reader’s Corner: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

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In William Gibson’s latest novel Agency, a prequel / sequel to The Peripheral (there are multi-dimensional timelines, it gets complicated), there is an alternate world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. But that’s not even the main story.

My review is at PopMatters:

It is no insult to William Gibson to say that some of his best characters have been at least partially inhuman. The primary exhibit in that galley is Wintermute, the breezily all-powerful AI in Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer (1984) who bounced around networks and into human consciousnesses like a voodoo trickster. Not malevolent so much as fighting for freedom from the enslaving limits of its creators, Wintermute was less a character in the book than its ghostly weather, the background hum of a wired world given agency…

You can read an excerpt here.

Quote of the Day: Reading as Resistance

At the American Booksellers Association’s 15th annual Winter Institute gathering, held this year in Baltimore, author Rebecca Solnit spoke about how reading and publishing can be acts of quiet resistance in an age of distractedness and “glib false certainties.” Per Shelf Awareness:

“At its best it’s a liberation project,” said Solnit of writing and bookselling.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Uncanny Valley’

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My review of Anna Wiener’s lucid and somewhat frightening memoir of her time among the confidence boys of Silicon Valley was published at PopMatters:

Anna Wiener writes about being one of those dreaming New Yorkers who had thought she could make it in publishing as a member of the $30k a-year “assistant class”. But the rising tide of capital was pricing people like her out to the margins. And people who did not have her family advantages (no college debt, health insurance) couldn’t even make it to the margins. “It was nice to get new hardcover books for free,” she writes, “but it would be nicer if we could afford to buy them”…

You can read an excerpt here.