Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
Ernest Hemingway, 1954 Nobel Prize Speech
Time-lapse video of European cities by Dominic Boudreault. Watch it full-screen.
Ernest Hemingway’s 1945 passport, recently added to the Hemingway Collection at the JFK Library in Boston. Hemingway is 46 years old in this photo. Compare.
The Digital Public Library of America is now open. An incredible resource.
Above: “Close Play at First, Fenway Park, 1934.” Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library Print Department. Via DPLA. (Click image to see full-size.)
In the last few weeks Defending Jacob has been nominated for three remarkable awards: the Massachusetts Book Award, the ITW Thriller Award for Best Novel, and the Strand Magazine Critics Award, also for best novel. I am deeply flattered and grateful for all three nominations.
A beautiful web site from photographer Andrew Zuckerman with a gallery of remarkable photographs of animals. The concept: “Substituting his minimalist visual language for the conventions of traditional nature photography, Zuckerman extracted his subjects from their environments and recontextualized them in the clarifying white space to distill each animal to its most essential qualities.”
Over the last few weeks this site has been updated. Nothing major — improved typography, simplified layout. But a few changes might affect visitors:
- RSS Feed. The RSS feed has been shifted from the dying FeedBurner to this site’s own native WordPress RSS feed. If you subscribe to the blog via RSS, you will need to update that address to the new RSS feed.
- Blog posts via email. I have removed the option of receiving blog posts via email. The trouble with having a blog-by-email service — which auto-generated an email to subscribers every time I added a post to the blog — was that it inhibited me from using the blog as I often like to: for short, occasional, unimportant posts that are more like scrapbook entries than essays. Those quick posts do not justify bothering hundreds of people with an email, which made me shy about posting anything at all to my own blog. Former blog-by-email subscribers will continue to receive the once- or twice-yearly email newsletter, and can of course subscribe to the blog via any RSS reader.
- Comments. The moribund comment sections of the blog also have been eliminated. There just weren’t enough people commenting to justify the cost in space and clutter. Eliminating comments allowed for a cleaner, lighter design. Most visitors who wanted to comment about something just emailed me anyway, which I encourage readers to do.
- Tumblr. I have abandoned my Tumblr blog and merged the contents back into this blog. For the last couple of years I used Tumblr as a scrapbook for things I found around the web — images, video clips, links — while the main blog was reserved for longer, essay-style blog posts. Alas, those long posts have become rare, especially in the tumult of publicizing Defending Jacob. Also, maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like having everything in one place, here on the main blog.
New cover treatment for Orwell’s 1984 by David Pearson. See all five of Pearson’s designs for Penguin’s George Orwell series here. (A bit more information is here.) The last image, with the title entirely cut out, was Pearson’s initial concept, rejected by Penguin for cost reasons.
The White House has posted this photo of the president’s marked-up draft of the State of the Union address, reinforcing Obama’s reputation as a gifted, meticulous, hands-on writer. I wonder: if we were to rank the greatest writer-presidents, surely Lincoln and Jefferson would take the top two places, but who would beat Obama for third place? Theodore Roosevelt and Kennedy would have their supporters, I guess, but I don’t think either beats Obama for the bronze medal. Any other contenders?
An enormous, legible version of this image is here. (Via James Fallows.) See also the similar image posted by the White House three years ago.
Prodigies like Picasso … tend to be “conceptual,” [the economist David] Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research,” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “… I have never made trials or experiments.”
But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes…
Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers,” on precocious vs. late-blooming artists, and two very different types of creativity: conceptual and experimental. This article helped me understand myself and my own (experimental) creative method, and it is still a consolation to me. (More here.)
But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. “Enjoy it as it deserves,” I should say to him; “take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, reveal it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you … There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory. Don’t think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself…. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible—to make as perfect a work.”
— Henry James
Read the complete essay here.
Defending Jacob is now available in paperback. The book hit the shelves yesterday (a couple of weeks ago in the UK). The hardcover keeps selling, too: on yesterday’s paperback publication date, Random House informed me the hardcover would go back to press for a surreal 15th printing. The larger format “trade” paperback will be released in the next few months, as well.
One of the nicer aspects of Defending Jacob’s long run is how the book has been taken up by book clubs. Book Movement, a web site for book clubs — because, as Book Movement nicely puts it, “not all great books are great book club books” — lists Jacob among its top picks for book clubs. I get emails every day from people who have read the novel in their book clubs, and they always tell me the discussion was lively. So the new paperback includes a reader’s guide, which I hope will help spur discussion for clubs as well as individual readers. (Book Movement has assembled a good readers’ guide for book clubs, too.)
In other news, Defending Jacob has been nominated for the Hammett Prize, awarded each year to “a work of literary excellence in the field of crime writing by a US or Canadian author.” A very nice honor indeed, for which I am grateful.
Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight.
Avi Steinberg, “Is Writing Torture?”
Another shot of today’s Boston Globe. Read the article here.
John Kenney and I have been the best of friends for almost 40 years now, since we met in 9th grade at the Roxbury Latin School in Boston. Now John has published a debut novel, Truth in Advertising, that is hilarious and poignant and has received glowing reviews. (Truth in Advertising also happens to have the greatest book trailer ever. This is what happens when a veteran ad man like John turns his attention to book publicity.)
Recently John and I did a joint appearance at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square (that’s the BPL in the background of that photo), and we met with a reporter from the Globe beforehand to talk about books and how two guys from the same tiny school managed to become novelists. I’m not sure we ever answered that question, really. When we’re together, John and I tend to talk fast, finish each other’s sentences, and laugh a lot. But somehow reporter Bella English managed to turn our rambling conversation into a story, which ran in this morning’s newspaper. Many thanks to Bella and Globe photographer Dina Rudick for capturing such a nice moment. Read it here.
Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.
Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.
— Tony Schwartz, “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive“
The 1940 Valentine’s Day Blizzard. Cars on Washington Street in Boston stalled out in the heavy snow, Feb. 14, 1940. (Via Boston Globe)
Kobe Bryant was drafted at #13 in 1996, passed over by my beloved Celtics, who took Antoine Walker instead. Ouch.