Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov’
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had an experience like this. You’re at a party, making small talk about what you do for a living, when a bystander pipes up: “You know, my friends always tell me I should be a writer. I’m always coming up with great ideas for stories.” At that point, if you’re lucky, you can nod politely and move on to another subject, but some writers aren’t so fortunate. Isaac Asimov complained that he’d frequently be approached by strangers at events or conventions who gave him some version of the following pitch: “I’ve got an idea for a bestselling novel. If you like, I can give it to you to write, and we can split the profits.” His response was usually something like this: “I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a better plan. I’ll come up with an idea, and you write the book.” According to Asimov, no one ever took him up on the offer. And although it’s easy to smile at this, it gets at a common misconception about fiction—and about what writers do—that clouds the way many readers regard even our greatest authors.
Ideas are the easy part. Give me a few hours and a stack of magazines, and I can come up with half a dozen perfectly legitimate ideas for short stories. Not all of them will be turn out to be viable, but they’ll all look equally plausible, and some of them may even get published. There’s a reason, though, that I write maybe two short stories a year at most, and it isn’t just an issue of time. Coming up with an idea is child’s play compared to the laborious work of constructing a plot and peopling it with convincing characters, a process that can feel less like the result of inspiration than an excursion into no-man’s land, in which a gain of ten inches can pass for a victory. I’m as guilty as anyone of stumbling across an interesting idea, thinking that it would make a great movie, and then promptly forgetting all about it, but I know better than to try to tell this to someone who actually writes and sells screenplays. Ideas are cheap; execution is what counts, and it’s what separates a true writer from a spinner of daydreams.
We all know this, of course, but conflating ideas with the resulting stories is a mistake that you see even among professional critics and academics. It’s a critical commonplace, for instance, that Shakespeare wasn’t much of a plotmaker, since he lifted his basic ideas from existing stories and historical texts. It’s tempting to buy into this argument, since it helps restore a god of poetry to more human dimensions, but unfortunately, it isn’t true. A glance at the primary sources of Hamlet or King Lear reveals how inventive Shakespeare really was: he often takes as inspiration only a sentence or two from a much longer work—something like the logline of a screenplay—and transforms even this gossamer premise beyond recognition. Nearly every scene in Hamlet is an original invention, as is the double plot of King Lear, to say nothing of such crowded, ingenious original stories as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline. (Shakespeare’s Game by the playwright William Gibson, which I just finished reading, does a nice job of reminding us how artful the construction of the plays really is.)
Shakespeare, in short, was as good at plot as he was at everything else, and diminishing his achievement simply because the bare bones of the story were already there is to deeply misunderstand what a writer does. (It’s interesting to note that many of Shakespeare’s cleverest plots, like The Merchant of Venice, arise from a fusion of one or more existing stories. Here, as in almost everything, creativity arises from combination.) It’s one thing to lift a few incidents from Holinshed, and quite another to create Falstaff. And while it may seem that Shakespeare, of all writers, doesn’t require defending, there’s no better place to draw the line between idea and story, if only because he provides other writers with such a sensational model to follow. As T.S. Eliot points out, it can be dangerous to imitate Shakespeare’s style, but in the tactical elaboration of his ideas into character and action—in which we catch him thinking in a way that we can’t in his poetry—he’s practical and instructive. Taking ideas and turning them into something more is exactly what professional writers do, and Shakespeare, along with so much else, was the ultimate professional.
It is easy to confuse creativity with correctness or truth…I don’t want to encourage creativity because I firmly believe that creativity and social popularity are mutually exclusive, and I don’t want to do anything that will encourage people to be misfits. If they want to be misfits without my encouragement, that’s their business.
Yesterday, I finally received the promised delivery of twenty-five contractual copies of The Icon Thief, which took me overnight from regarding my few author’s copies as the most precious things in the world to having more copies of my book than I’ll ever need. I’m not alone in this, of course: every author I’ve ever met has had a box or two of his or her own books on hand, or a whole bookcase taken up with that single title, like the Da Vinci Code shelf at your local thrift store. (As David Thomson says of his insane, widely derided, and oddly compelling study of Nicole Kidman: “I have fortress walls made of it.” Similarly, the biographer Michael Holroyd describes seeing “a long tall corridor that had been built entirely out of unsold copies of my books,” which he calls “an impressive, an undeniable spectacle.”)
So what do authors do with their own books? Ideally, if you’re of a certain temperament, you want to end up with a library like that of Isaac Asimov, who initially kept all the editions of his books, including translations, but finally ran out of room for anything but the English-language originals (and had to throw away the non-Asimov pages from magazines in which his work appeared). All the same, there’s a limit to the amount of space you have for your own work, at least until you can sell all of it to the University of Texas. Any prolific author will inevitably end up with more books than he needs, and may be tempted to shout to his publisher, like James Thurber in his story “File and Forget”: “I don’t want any more copies of my book. I don’t want any more copies of my book. I don’t want any more copies of my book.”
Of course, the best thing to do with spare copies of one’s own book is to send them around to various influential readers. Even the greatest authors have done this, as we see in a letter by Charles Darwin to Thomas Huxley:
Can you tell me of any good and speculative foreigners to whom it would be worth while to send copies of my book, on the ‘Origin of Species’?…I should like to send a few copies about, but how many I can afford I know not yet till I hear what price Murray affixes.
Emerson, among countless others, made sure that copies of his books were sent to all the important New York editors, listing each one by name, while Aleister Crowley eventually took over the job of selling the unsold copies of his books himself, and indignantly noted, against the rumors circulating in London, that his decision to leave his publisher “had nothing at all to do with the strangling of any woman.” (I know that this last story is a little off-topic, but I couldn’t resist.)
As for my own copies, I’ll keep a few around the house, one to read, one for the archives in a mylar bag, and a couple of spares for emergencies. I owe copies to a number of people thanked in the acknowledgments, including those who kindly read earlier versions of the novel. As for the rest, they’ll probably end up in various hands, maybe even yours, if I ever get around to figuring out some kind of giveaway. (But don’t let that stop you from buying your own copy, just in case.) In the meantime, though, it’s nice to see them all lined up in one place, before they wander off to make their way in the world, and in this respect, if no other, I feel a little like Thomas Wolfe, who stared at copies of his first book in a store window so intently that somebody called the police.
I don’t feel much like writing a blog post today—I imprudently chopped a hot green pepper into my breakfast omelet, and it still feels like my head is on fire—but I’m going to write one anyway. Why? Because I’ve now posted something every day, without fail, for close to a year now, and it feels strange to skip it, in much the same way that I feel vaguely uncomfortable whenever I’m not working on a larger writing project. And I’m grateful for this. This blog has granted me all kinds of unexpected rewards, but perhaps the most useful consequence of all has been the habit of sitting down to write upwards of five hundred words every morning, on top of my other duties as a writer, to the point where I’d no more think about going a day without posting than I’d skip brushing my teeth.
And this kind of habit is something I’ve always tried to cultivate, trusting that it will see me through whenever inspiration or craft fall short. Everyone knows that a writer should write something every day, but I’m not sure if everyone understands why. As I see it, there are three good reasons for writing every day, from the least to the most general:
- It increases the odds of a particular project being finished.
- It gets you closer to the million words or 10,000 hours required to achieve mastery.
- It accustoms you to the habit of writing.
And this last point is perhaps the most important. A true writer is someone who is used to writing, who does it all the time, and who can’t imagine going more than a few days without it. And if anything separates a professional from a gifted amateur, it’s that the professional feels strange whenever he or she isn’t working.
This sense of uneasiness between major projects is something that nearly every writer can understand, and it’s responsible for such monsters of productivity as Isaac Asimov, who wrote something like five hundred books simply because he was happiest in front of a typewriter. And I’ve always felt that one’s goal as a writer should be to follow the example of Trollope, who wrote a fixed number of words each day and, if he finished a novel halfway through the day’s work, simply took out a new page and began another. It may seem hard at first, but as as Tom Wolfe says in this morning’s quote, writing generally comes out the same whether you’re forcing it or not. And looking back at my own work, I know that there have been mornings when the writing seemed to flow by magic, and ones where every sentence was a struggle, but when I read over the finished manuscript, I can’t tell the difference, at least not after a few revisions.
Habit, I’m convinced, is the secret weapon in any writer’s arsenal. Much of what we call talent, virtue, or even good taste merely amounts to the tedious cultivation of daily habits of work and thought, gained and nurtured by simple repetition until they become close to unconscious. Habit alone won’t guarantee good writing, but it’s safe to say that a writer without good habits won’t produce much of anything except by luck or accident. It may not be sufficient, but it’s definitely necessary, and even on the most basic level, habit can work wonders. I rarely feel like writing when I start each morning’s work, but by the time I’m at my desk for five minutes, I can’t imagine doing anything else. And it can solve other problems, too. Looking at what I’ve done this morning, I see that, somehow, I’ve written a blog post, and no longer feel that hot green pepper reverberating through my skull. Isn’t writing great?
Arthur C. Clarke famously argued that our politicians should read science fiction, instead of westerns and detective stories, and Isaac Asimov, as we’ve seen, thought that an early interest in good science fiction was the best predictor of children who would become the great scientists of tomorrow. As I look around the world today, though, I worry that we’re suffering from a lack of science-fictional thinking. And it isn’t just the fact that America can no longer go into space. It’s that our dreams have grown smaller, and the most ambitious visions are greeted with a dismissive tweet. George W. Bush’s proposal to go to Mars was admittedly hard to take seriously, given its complete lack of specifics, but when the timeline of DARPA’s 100-year Starship Study makes it clear that nobody expects to go to the stars within the next century, I have to wonder what happened to the national will that put a man on the moon using computers like this. And my greatest fear is that we’ve lost the ability to even talk about such issues in suitably cosmic terms.
These days, only a handful of public intellectuals seem willing to talk about the future in ways designed to expand our sense of the possible. One is Ray Kurzweil, whose concept of the singularity, perhaps the most exciting—and lunatic—of all forms of futurism, has finally crossed over into the mainstream. Another is Freeman Dyson, the legendary physicist and mathematician who made several practical, lasting contributions to speculative fiction, notably the concept of the Dyson sphere, almost in passing. Both men are geniuses, and both are willing to take outlandish positions. As a result, both often seem faintly ridiculous themselves. Kurzweil, with his line of longevity supplements and obsession with the idea of his own immortality, can occasionally come off as a snake oil salesman, while Dyson has been roundly attacked as a global warming skeptic. And although Dyson’s arguments deserve to be taken seriously, there doesn’t seem to be a place for them in the mainstream dialogue on climate change, which reflects less on his ideas themselves than on the limitations we’ve subconsciously imposed on the debate.
Dyson’s treatment in the media has been particularly sobering. He doesn’t deny that global warming exists, or that it’s primarily caused by human activity, but questions whether it’s possible to predict the consequences using existing models of climate change, and believes that the danger is overblown compared to other risks, such as global poverty and disease. Dyson also argues that the problem of climate change isn’t social or political, but scientific, and has proposed a number of seemingly farfetched solutions, such as planting a trillion trees to absorb excess carbon dioxide. Perhaps most notoriously, he believes that global warming itself might not be entirely a bad thing. Rather, it will be good for some species and bad for others, a general “evening out” of the climate in a post-Darwinian world driven less by natural selection than by human activity. As a result, he has been widely accused of being oblivious, uncaring, or demented, notably in a fascinating but profoundly disingenuous piece by Kenneth Brower in the Atlantic.
Many of Dyson’s ideas are impractical, or simply incorrect, but it doesn’t seem wise to dismiss a scientist universally regarded by his colleagues as one of the smartest men in the world. And the more one looks at Dyson’s opinions, the more obvious it becomes that they need to be part of the conversation. This isn’t a politically motivated “skeptic” whose ideas are so far off the map that they don’t even deserve refutation; it’s a profoundly original mind approaching the problem from a novel perspective, drawing conclusions that have the power to shake us into new ways of thinking, and as such, he deserves to be celebrated—and, when necessary, refuted, but only by critics willing to meet him on equal terms. He may come up with outlandish proposals, but that’s what science-fictional minds do. Dyson may not have the answers, but only a system of public discussion capable of engaging his ideas will result in the answers we need. And if we can’t talk about his ideas at all, it’s our loss.
For my twelfth birthday, my parents must have given me a few good presents, but the only one I still vividly remember, close to two decades later, is the June 1992 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I’m not sure what inspired them to pick it up—it’s the only time they ever got me a copy—but I read it cover to cover, and still remember many of the stories, including “The Big Splash” by L. Sprague de Camp, “Grownups” by Ian R. MacLeod, and “Monsters” by James Patrick Kelly. (The latter two novelettes, incidentally, benefited from excellent artwork, which I can still picture to this day, by Laurie Harden, who nineteen years later would go on to illustrate my story “The Boneless One.”) And I have to admit that whenever I get a story into Analog, I secretly hope that among the magazine’s declining but faithful band of readers, there’s at least one twelve-year-old boy or girl on whose imagination I’ll make a similarly lasting impression.
Because smart twelve-year-olds are the best audience in the world. Asimov himself realized this, almost fifty years ago, when he wrote his famous editorial “The Sword of Achilles” for the November 1963 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Asimov notes that it’s important to be able to identify young children who will go on to be creative scientists, in order to foster their talents from an early age, and that the best predictor for such gifts is an interest in what he calls “good science fiction.” He then lists a few authors who might qualify, such as Clarke, Pohl, and de Camp, and also the science fiction magazines “universally acknowledged to be of highest quality,” including, of course, Analog. Asimov concludes: “It is youngsters who are interested in these authors and these magazines, then, that we seek for.” And while the list itself has certainly evolved over the past fifty years, the underlying point remains true: one of the greatest functions of quality fiction lies in encouraging the imaginations of intelligent teens and preteens.
But the real takeaway here is that none of these authors was writing for children. They were writing for adults, and the kids found them anyway. This is one of the reasons why I have mixed feelings about the increasing dominance of young adult fiction. (Part of me suspects that these novels are really intended for adults who just want to read children’s books, but that’s another issue entirely.) At first glance, it seems like a positive development: teens and preteens have more books targeted at them than ever before, many of them thinly disguised versions of adult genres, and some are very good. But it isn’t enough to read books targeted at your own level: you need to read slightly above it. When I was growing up, there weren’t many options for young adults once I’d graduated past the likes of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, so I had no choice to plunge into Animal Farm and 1984, at which point there was no turning back. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of millions of teens who read Stephen King long before the appropriate age, which is exactly the right time to read him. But I’m not sure how many kids are doing this today.
As I see it, Asimov’s Sword needs to be slightly revised. If an interest in good science fiction is a predictor of scientific creativity, an early interest in good—or even bad—adult fiction is a predictor for creativity in general. Smart kids are always going to read things that are slightly inappropriate, and we need to encourage this, both actively, by giving them access to books beyond those available in the young adult section at Barnes & Noble, and passively, by looking the other way when they show up with the inevitable battered paperback copy of The Stand. My own novels are meant for adults, but I’d be thrilled to see them in the hands of sixth-graders. Because as Asimov points out, these books aren’t just predictors, but active influences in their own right. “Interest in science is stimulated by the reading,” he notes, “rather than the reverse.” And that’s true of most fiction—but only when written for adults. Because the smart kids will find it on their own.
Following up conveniently on my most recent post, yesterday I received an acceptance email from Analog for my short story “Ernesto.” This is the first acceptance I’ve received since the magazine switched to an electronic submission process, and while I’m always gratified to sell them a story, I do really miss Stanley Schmidt’s old typewritten letters, which he’d been cranking out for something like thirty years. If nothing else, I’m glad that I was able to publish a few stories under the old system, so that I have a couple of typewritten acceptances lying around the house (along with an equal or greater number of rejection slips, which are also a badge of honor).
The sale of “Ernesto” is particularly satisfying for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s my first sale to Analog that wasn’t a novelette, but a short story, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a form in which I’ve never felt entirely comfortable. “Ernesto” is one of my first attempts at a more classically structured short story, so it’s nice to see it published. It’s also my fifth story bought by Analog to date, which is a number that has some psychological importance. Isaac Asimov explains why in the first volume of his wonderful memoirs, In Memory Yet Green:
[At a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction League in 1940], I won a science fiction quiz given to the membership…One of the questions was: “What is the name of the youngest well-established science-fiction author?” (By “well-established,” it was carefully explained, it meant someone who had published more than five stories in the professional magazines.)
The answer was “Isaac Asimov” and I was happy, for I was the youngest in a new category. Still a child prodigy!
Asimov, by the way, was twenty at the time. It’s taken me a while longer, but I’ll catch up to him one of these days! (Or perhaps not.)
Anyway, I’m glad to know that “Ernesto”—which I first wrote over a year ago—will finally see print. It’s especially amusing in light of the apparent confusion over whether my stories are science fiction or not, because “Ernesto” is by far the least sci-fi of any of my stories—it’s a historical mystery, with some paranormal overtones, set during the Spanish Civil War, with the young Ernest Hemingway as a central character. For the rest, you’ll have to wait until the story comes out, hopefully late this year or early next. And if my attempt to wring every last drop out of “Kawataro” is any indication, you’ll be hearing a lot about it here.
If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.
Q. Do you consider a novelist’s life the best possible form of existence?
A. I should say yes if I did not know of a form of existence to be even better.
Q. And what is that?
A. Inheriting a fortune, putting your hands in your pockets, and for the rest of your life doing nothing.
—Punch, December 1, 1894
As my quote of the day reminds us, nearly every writer needs a day job. Even if you aren’t a poet, where the chances of making a living solely through writing are pretty much zero, the number of novelists in the United States who can support themselves with prose fiction alone is very small—probably something like less than a thousand. The rest teach, apply for grants, write reviews, or, most often, do something else entirely. And there’s no shame in that. Abraham Cohen, author of Everyman’s Talmud, points out that even the great rabbis worked for a living:
The story of Hillel’s poverty has already been told. Of other Rabbis we learn that Akiba used to collect a bundle of wood daily and exist on the price he received for it; Joshua was a charcoal-burner and lived in a room the walls of which were begrimed by his manner of work; Meïr was a scribe; José b. Chalaptha was a worker in leather; Jochanan was a maker of sandals; Judah was a baker; and Abba Saul held a menial position as a kneader of dough, while he mentions that he had also been a grave-digger.
And you can make a similar list for contemporary writers very easily, even if you restrict it to jobs that were held after the authors in question were published and, in some cases, famous. T.S. Eliot, as I’ve noted before, was a banker. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Douglas Adams worked as a hotel security guard. Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership. Henry Miller was a personnel manager at a telegraph company. Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry. And if you extend the list to what writers did before their first big break—Stephen King folded sheets in an industrial laundry, Joshua Ferris worked for an ad agency, Harlson Ellison did just about everything—it becomes nearly endless.
As for me, among various other things, I’ve written movie reviews, corporate training manuals, and online encyclopedia entries, some of which are still floating around on the Web, and spent several years occupying a desk at a New York investment firm, the less said about which the better. It’s been almost five years since I decided to go it alone, a choice I made because I saw no other way. (I have enormous respect for anyone who can write a novel while working a full-time job, because I know exactly how hard it is.) Whether I can continue to write for a living—whether, in short, I can become one of those thousand—remains to be seen. There’s certainly no guarantee. But, for lack of a better word, it’s definitely going to be interesting.