Writer’s Desk: Be the Bird

A lot of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, involves research. Crime novelists go out on ride-alongs with cops and interview morticians to figure out the tricks of the trade to embed in their books so that the made-up feels more authentic. Most nonfiction writers, even if they have a specialty, have to write about things they are not expert in, and so have to draw on others’ work.

Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell, the journeyman journalist who writes about everything from sports to music to the problem of elite education and solving homelessness. How does he cover it all? A few years back, here is what he told students at Yale:

I’m not doing the original work … There’s that bird on the back of the elephant that picks off the ticks — I am the bird.

Following that approach still involves being able to tell a good story. Narrative excitement and creating a sense of discovery and thrill is the duty of every writer. But in order to have a story to tell, writers need raw material.

Read widely. Absorb as much as you can. Find a better to tell a story, with connections nobody else thought of. Spread your wings and write.

The Modern Bookshelf: Neuroscience Goes Pop


Science is making incredible advances in studying the human brain, with ever-more powerful research methods allowing ever-more cranial secrets to be unlocked. Books are being written on these advances by the score, many of them promising to show how new developments will help people improve their lives. It’s an easy sell, starting with Malcolm Gladwell’s breezy and semi-insightful pronouncements on the one end and narrowing down at the other end toward books like Jonah Lehrer’s (discredited) Imagine: How Creativity Works.

As Steven Poole comments in his New Statesmen piece on this new mini-trend (which he terms an “intellectual pestilence”), anything that comes with a brain scan seems to have the imprimatur of irrefutable science on it, quoting a researcher who says: “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph.”

Not the greatest danger, perhaps, but still, one should always be on the alert when writers come bearing exciting new studies (often wildly misinterpreted) that promise a new way to live. Per Poole:

The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.