How Writers Write: Margaret Atwood

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Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from

“Chance favors the connected mind.”

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Oliver Sacks on Mythmaking

Is the human instinct to tell stories — and it does seem to be instinctive since it crosses all boundaries of time and place — a way we explain the world to ourselves?

I would say that the human brain or the human mind is disposed to create stories or narratives. Children love stories, make up stories. Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models. And of course some of these will come together because then you want to have a story which explains. We all come into the world, and human beings sort of evolved into a mysterious world and had to wonder where they came from, how the world came from [sic], what are the stars doing. And in the absence of better explanations, I think, supernatural explanations sort of come to mind.

Via Big Think.

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Vita Brevis, Ars Brevior


Last night I watched The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the 1965 film version of le Carré’s novel. The movie is very good — not quite great, but very good. It does a lot of things well. It is beautifully shot, with an elegant gray palette and wonderfully dingy sets. It is well written. Even at 112 minutes long, the plotting is tight and the dialogue is generally rich and credible. (Le Carré himself added some polish to the screenplay.) The acting is terrific. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom shine in the lead roles, of course, but the cast is filled out with obscure actors in supporting roles who are just as good, especially Cyril Cusack as the spymaster “Control” in London, and Oskar Werner as an East German intelligence officer named Fiedler. The whole thing plays like a watered-down version of The Third Man — which I mean as high praise, actually. You could do a lot worse than The Third Man Lite. I came away thinking that TSWCIFTC sits somewhere in that range of movies that are much better than average yet not good enough (or lucky enough) to last. I have no doubt it was one of the best movies of 1965; now it is almost completely forgotten.

To an artist, that is a queasy thought. Ars longa, vita brevis, we like to think. Life is short, art endures.* But the truth is, the vast majority of the art that gets churned up every year — movies, music, literature, pictures, dance, all of it — is about as brevis as you can get. It perishes almost immediately. Even very, very good work like this movie is quickly buried in the endless avalanche of newer creations.

This is no great insight. Every writer knows that ars longa, vita brevis is a vanity. You have only to walk through the endless dusty, abandoned stacks of a library to realize how quickly books are forgotten, even very good books. (Dr. Johnson pointed this out long ago.) Only an infinitesimal percentage of books remain current for any length of time. The rest die by the millions. Ars longa, my ass.

The good news is that, from the audience’s perspective, the reservoir of good art is vastly deeper than we tend to think, especially now, when the long-tail economy of the digiverse makes even the most recherché obscurities quite easy to obtain. If you scratch below the surface even a little bit, there are lots of forgotten jewels like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. That is a fact I will do my best to ignore when I sit down to work.

* Yes, I know that is not a completely accurate translation of ars longa, vita brevis, but it is how the phrase is generally understood today.

Categories: Art · Movies    Tags: · · ·

How James Bond Got His Name

Ian Fleming explains.

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Bill Gates on Energy

Is there a more demoralizing problem than global warming? Discussing it feels utterly hopeless. Climate skeptics are unmoveable despite the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. Intelligent, well-meaning conservative friends of mine, people I like and respect, simply reject that the problem exists, let alone that we ought to fix it.

So I found this video of Bill Gates at TED heartening. Saddled as we are with a feckless government and a venomous, polarized political climate, it is good to know there are actual adults working on solutions. It is a hopeful note to take with you into the weekend.

Also, it occurs to me that Bill Gates has become, surprisingly, a model of how the obscenely wealthy ought to behave. Instead of using his wealth for self-indulgence or simply to go on making more and more money to no real purpose, as so many rich guys do, he has become a powerful, articulate force for good. Whatever you may think of his products or his business tactics at Microsoft (and I am no fan), Gates has become a sort of self-funded NGO, consciously emulating enlightened plutocrats past, Carnegie in particular. No longer the nerdy villain to Steve Jobs’s hip, black-turtlenecked rebel, Gates now takes on problems that seem too big even for governments: disease and poverty in Africa, global warming. Isn’t that a greater contribution than, say, the iPad?

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The Importance of Shipping

Seth Godin advises writers and other artists (at around 7:45 of this video), “What you do for a living is not be creative. Everyone is creative. What you do for a living is ship. … That is the discipline of what a creative artist does.” Even allowing for a little hyperbole (obviously artists have to be creative and ship), it is a useful reminder.

I ran across this clip the other day, just as I have been laboring to finish my third novel. And “laboring” is just the word for it: after a December that was by far my most productive month ever, I have been useless in January. I have not been writing well enough. Much, much worse, I haven’t been writing enough, period. I have rationalized my January slump as exhaustion and “part of the creative process” and all the usual horseshit, but listening to Godin I wonder if it isn’t the lizard brain after all — fear of finishing, of showing your work, being judged. Yes, even now, with two books under my belt.

I have sometimes been jealous of my writer-friends who were trained to write on deadline. Advertising copywriters do not learn to write truthfully, and journalists do not learn to write beautifully. But they do learn to finish. Or call the damn thing finished, whatever imperfections remain, and move on to the next assignment. In the long run, that may be the most valuable skill of all.

Finish. Ship. Next project. That is the unpoetic reality of being a writer. All writers know this, yet all writers need to hear it again and again. Myself included.

Source: Seth Godin: “Quieting the Lizard Brain” on Vimeo. Read Godin’s blog on the same subject here.

John Irving: “A need to be alone”

“I recognized at a pretty early age — certainly I was pre-teens — I noticed that the school day was enough of the day to spend with my friends. I seemed to have a need to … be alone.” I am sure this is a common characteristic of writers, even gregarious ones. Certainly I needed to have time alone as a kid, and I still do.

You can watch the full interview with John Irving here. Via Big Think.

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Walt Whitman for Levi’s

I was struck by this ad for Levi’s jeans, which features a few stanzas from Walt Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” If you dislike the spot, I understand. The bullshit factor is high even by advertising standards: half-naked slackers as “new American pioneers,” hawking these surpassingly American jeans that are actually made overseas, using a poet who probably never heard of blue jeans. And all this solemnity over … pants. But to me this looks like an ad for Whitman, not Levi’s. When was the last time poetry looked this cool or sounded this stirring? Whether the ad will actually sell jeans I have no idea. But it will get plenty of people asking, “What is that poem?” And that is a very good thing.

By the way, the actor reading these lines is Will Geer, recorded in 1957, before he became Grandpa Walton.

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Philip Roth on the novel’s “cultic” future

More clips from this interview here.

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“There’s certainly a brain basis to crime … the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us.”
— Adrian Raine

A burgeoning science suggests that crime is caused in part by biological factors, that is, by traits inherited through DNA or by the brain malfunctioning in very specific ways. Adrian Raine, a “neurocriminologist” and chair of the criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania, says,

“Seventy-five percent of us have had homicidal thoughts. What stops most of us from acting out these feelings is the prefrontal cortex…. When the prefrontal cortex is not functioning too well, maybe an individual, when angry, is more likely to pick up a knife and stab someone or pick up a gun.”

Some criminals, it seems, are biologically different from us.

“People who are psychopaths or who have antisocial personality disorder are literally cold-blooded. They have lower heart rates.  When they’re stressed, they don’t sweat as much as the rest of us. They don’t have this anticipatory fear that the rest of us have.”

Obviously I am not qualified to judge the science. But if it is true, as seems increasingly likely, that “freedom of will is not as free as you think,” as Professor Raine puts it, that fact would undercut the entire philosophy of our criminal law, which is that we punish the guilty mind, the mens rea — the conscious, purposeful decision to commit a crime. Where the defendant’s free will or judgment is compromised, because he is drunk or insane or a child, for example, generally the law attaches a lesser degree of culpability, sometimes no culpability at all (the proper finding for an insane defendant is “not guilty by reason of insanity,” not “guilty but insane”).

My third novel, to be published in February 2012, turns on just these sorts of questions. The story involves a father whose teenage son is accused of a murder, a crime that may have been triggered by the boy’s genetic inheritance — a “murder gene.” How should we think of such a criminal? It is not simply a question about crime or criminal law. It is the fundamental subject of crime novels, it is the reason we read them, to ask: What does crime tell us about ourselves and our nature? Modern neuroscience and genetics are beginning to provide answers Dostoyevsky could never have imagined.

Here is Professor Raine on the legal and ethical implications of neurocriminology:

Lawrence Lessig on the Google book search settlement

Will Google Books, the audacious attempt to digitize every book ever written, have the perverse effect of making books — and ideas — less available, less ubiquitous, less free? Will copyright laws require that most of the books written in the last century be excluded from the new digital online library? Is this progress? This is Lawrence Lessig speaking at Harvard two weeks ago. Lessig’s presentation runs about 28 minutes followed by a 15-minute Q&A.

Categories: Books · Internet    Tags: · · ·

Remembering Updike the Father

John Updike’s son David, also a writer, has a lovely piece in the Times’ Paper Cuts blog. It is a eulogy for his father which he delivered at a tribute in March at the New York Public Library. I found this passage particularly touching:

But for someone who was getting famous, my father didn’t seem to work overly hard: he was still asleep when we went to school, and was often home already when we got back. When we appeared unannounced, in his office — on the second floor of a building he shared with a dentist, accountants and the Dolphin Restaurant — he always seemed happy and amused to see us, stopped typing to talk and dole out some money for movies. But as soon as we were out the door, we could hear the typing resume, clattering with us down the stairs.

My own sons, now five and eight, perceive me the same way, I think. To kids (and others), a writer at work does not seem to be doing much. They can’t understand that I am hard at it whether I am typing like mad or staring blankly out the window. Maybe this is true of all desk-work. Well, at least I have this one thing in common with Updike.

I admit, I feel a strange, vaguely filial attachment to writers of my father’s generation, especially Roth, Updike and Doctorow, whose books I grew up reading. Anyway, read the whole Updike eulogy. You won’t be sorry.

In the meantime, for all my fellow unmentored writers out there, here is Updike in 2004 with some fatherly advice for young writers.

The rest of the interview is here.

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: · · · · ·

Best Boston Movie Ever: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Recently I wrote a short appreciation for the Rap Sheet of George V. Higgins’s definitive Boston crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The piece will run soon as part of the Rap Sheet’s terrific Friday series, Books You Have to Read, which celebrates forgotten (or never properly appreciated) crime novels. [Update: My article on the novel is now up. You can find it here.]

Fortuitously, Criterion just released a pristine new restoration of the 1973 film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and it is not to be missed. The Criterion DVD brings back a forgotten classic and the best movie about Boston ever.

Let’s be honest: there aren’t that many great movies about Boston, particularly crime stories, though the city has bred more than its share of crime novelists. There are some good movies set in Boston that could as easily take place elsewhere without losing much; The Verdict comes to mind. But movies that aim to capture this city’s unique personality — as, say, L.A. Confidential and Chinatown do for Los Angeles? Or Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America are unmistakably New York stories? Those are rare.

The serious competition is all recent. Good Will Hunting is fun but overrated. (Watch it again.) The Departed is just not a serious movie, and anyone who believes Jack Nicholson or Leonardo DiCaprio would last five minutes in Whitey Bulger’s world really ought to turn off the DVD player and come out into the world for a while.

The only real challenger for the title of best Boston movie is Mystic River. But put the two films side by side and Mystic River looks like Eddie Coyle lite — Boston as Californians might imagine it. Mystic River is just too much of everything: a melodrama, pretty to look at, with gorgeous swooping helicopter-cam shots of the city skyline and a platoon of glamorous stars, all of them strenuously, visibly acting. These are the sort of big, emotive performances we now recognize as Oscar bait, Sean Penn’s in particular.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the real thing. Quiet and dingy, a series of terse conversations in dim bars and gray, leafless parks. It is an ensemble piece, despite having a big-ticket star in Robert Mitchum. Voices are rarely raised. Only two fatal shots are fired. This is the reality of small-time crime life: not high drama, but a wary, exhausting series of risky transactions dimly understood even by the thick-headed hoods on the inside.

With any Boston movie, we have to consider how the difficult Boston accent is handled, too, and here Mystic River flops badly. I saw it in Boston in a theater full of Bostonians, and the audience seemed to require subtitles to understand what the hell these people were saying. Eddie Coyle has a few wobbly moments but mostly gets it right. Alex Rocco, now remembered mostly as Moe Greene in The Godfather, plays a convincing Boston hoodlum. He should: as a pudgy kid named Bobo Petricone he hung around on the periphery of the fearsome Winter Hill Gang.

Eddie Coyle is not perfect by any means. A lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel (that Higgins did not get a screenwriter credit is a travesty), and some of those lines don’t work as well in the actors’ mouths as they do on the page. And the seventies tics — the wah-wah soundtrack, the groovy idioms, “man” and “lover” and so on — can be a bit much, though you might go in for that sort of thing.

It may be, too, that the film appeals to me as a time capsule of a city I remember. To a kid who grew up in Boston, it is a kick to see Barbo’s furniture store. (Any New Englander of a certain age can sing the Barbo’s jingle, which played on car radios incessantly.) And to revisit the old Boston Garden, where Eddie watches the sports god of my childhood, “number four, Bobby Orr — what a future he has.” Just seeing Boston in late fall — completely drained of color, the trees all bare, the grayed-out sunless sky, the people dressed in drab — is enough to make me feel poignant and murderous.

But the main thing The Friends of Eddie Coyle has going for it is Mitchum, speaking the incomparable lines of George Higgins. Mitchum is not the Eddie Coyle of the book. Even in his brokedown fifties, Mitchum is too big and handsome for that. He can’t smother his leading-man charisma enough to quite become a small-time loser like Eddie. So this Eddie Coyle is Mitchum’s own creation. The booklet that accompanies the new Criterion DVD — which alone is worth the price of the disk — says that Mitchum was first offered the part of Dillon, the two-faced bartender. That part instead went to a then-unknown Peter Boyle. Good thing. Mitchum gives the the best performance of his life. He is as quiet and understated as Sean Penn is actorly. There is not a hint of the preening movie star anywhere in his performance. Watch this clip and notice how little Mitchum moves his body or alters his expression, how he communicates a lot while “signaling” very little. The effect is completely convincing. That voice, that smirking wised-up manner — true Boston.


How Writers Write: Philip Roth

“Without a novel I’m empty. I’m empty and not very happy.” From a writer’s point of view, it is touching to hear a giant like Roth confess to a feeling I know well. Here Roth discusses his writing process. I love the brief glimpse of Roth at his stand-up desk (beginning at about 3:23), composing his novels on what looks like the ancient blue screen of a DOS-based word processor. Roth uses a stand-up desk because of a bad back. “He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes.” (link) How comforting it is to see the homely touch of those extra reams of paper stacked under the monitor to boost it up to eye level.

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The economics of dealing crack

At TED in 2004, Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist and co-author of Freakonomics, analyzes the economics of the street-corner crack trade. Contrary to popular belief, the “corner boys” make less than minimum wage — for a job with a higher mortality rate than death row.

Categories: Crime    Tags: · · ·

“The Commitments”

It is always dangerous to watch a movie you liked as a kid, but I watched “The Commitments” last night for the first time in years and thought it held up remarkably well. Alan Parker’s 1991 film, based on Roddy Doyle’s debut novel, tells the story of a Dublin hustler named Jimmy Rabbitte who puts together a soul band composed mostly of working-class kids who know nothing about soul or even, in some cases, about music.

The core of the cast are all non-actors recruited from various Dublin bands. Still, “The Commitments” is loaded with great performances. Glen Hansard, who would appear fifteen years later in another great Dublin music film, “Once,” plays the lead guitarist. Maria Doyle, of the band Hothouse Flowers, is one of the backup singers, the Commitment-ettes. And Andrew Strong, an unknown who was 16 years old when “The Commitments” was filmed, blows the roof off with performances that owe as much to Joe Cocker as to Wilson Pickett.

After “The Commitments,” most of the cast returned to careers in music or, frankly, in obscurity. Among the band members, only Doyle and Angeline Ball, who played the blond-bombshell backup singer, have had substantial acting careers since “The Commitments.” So the film feels like lightning in a bottle — an unrepeatable one-off caught on film. It feels alive.

What makes the film live, also, is the sense of music as a pure expression of hope and joy for young people in a gritty down-and-out place. In these down-and-out times, that’s an uplifting thing to watch.

Here is just a taste:

Categories: Movies · Music    Tags: · ·

I Miss U: Updike Is Gone

I miss John Updike. Not his work. I loved his stories and some of his novels, but lately I admired his books more than I enjoyed them, and sometimes not even that. Anyway, he left more books than I will ever be able or inclined to read.

It is not Updike’s writing that I miss, it is Updike. I miss knowing he was out there, always working, writing, producing. To legions of younger writers, he was the model. He showed us how a professional writer ought to conduct his life, how to comport himself in public and discipline himself at work.

Julian Barnes wrote an appreciative review of Updike’s last books in which he struck on the perfect word for Updike: courteous.

Updike’s fertility was matched by his courtesy — both as a man and as an authorial presence. His fiction never set out to baffle or intimidate. … Updike always treated the reader as a joint partner in the artistic process, an adult equal with whom curiosity and delight in the world were to be shared.

And, Barnes might have added, he always treated his characters with the same decency and sympathy, even when they were behaving badly. It was not in his nature to judge them. (He was an equally gentle book reviewer, a rarity now.)

No particular insight here. It is just sad to see a great man pass.

Updike lives on in cyberspace, at least, as perhaps we all will. For star power, the best clip to emerge since his death was this 1981 interview with John Cheever on the Dick Cavett Show. But I prefer the old, avuncular Updike. (He never seemed elderly — not frail, merely old.) Here he is in 2004, explaining the ability of the novel to “extend the reader’s sympathy,” which is the secret power of fiction.

The rest of the interview is here.

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