Wishing a happy pub day to Findings: An Illustrated Collection, which might be the perfect Xmas gift for anyone interested in facts, science, data, or earless rabbits born in Fukushima, Japan. It’s Amazon’s #1 New Release in “Scientific Experiments & Projects”!
The last page of every issue of Harper’s is dedicated to the Findings column, which compiles the month’s scientific findings into a brilliant and moving three-paragraph lyric of sorts. I’ve got an interview in the book with the current longtime writer of Findings, Rafil Kroll-Zaidi. In celebration of the book’s publication, the interview is up today at Tin House.
A lot of what I’ve learned about the creative use of facts and data in nonfiction comes from these two conversations I had with Rafil three years ago. He’s a guy who speaks in paragraphs. Someone should give him a tenure-track job.
Last week I said I didn’t get why writers decided on the academic conference model for their annual get-togethers. I mean, I get it: we’re writers in the academy. To be allowed into the Ivory Tower and be subsidized by it, we had to play by some rules. Is that it, really? I don’t buy that we need to be scholarly in our conferences—even though our travel costs are, on the whole, covered by universities. Or: I don’t buy that we need to be scholarly the way scholars are scholarly.
To that end, here’s a few ideas on how to make a writers’ conference not only more enjoyable, but a better place for the transmission of new ideas:
Ban the reading of written papers. I acknowledge I’ve got a low threshold for boredom, but I can’t be the only one perpetually bored by these. The thing with the paper is that despite its endgame (i.e., being read aloud to a group of quiet strangers) the aim of the paper (delivering new ideas about writing) doesn’t offer room for most people to make it listenable-to and engaging. It’s a written thing, and as writers we work to make it our own—when what it should be is everybody else’s. Ban the reading of written papers.
Ban the reading of PowerPoint slides. Just because you have visuals doesn’t negate the above.
Require any PowerPoint-style lectures to follow a PechaKucha format. Limit of 20 slides, each shown for just 20 seconds. That’s 6 mins 40 seconds for you to get new ideas across. It’s Twitter for conference presentations. Or, I don’t know, pick some other format—but provide restrictions, as Oulipan as they need to be, that writers will rise to the challenge of.
Early deadlines for panel materials. Often the panelists on a panel don’t all know each other (when they do, get up and leave the room). This can be made a productive thing. Get half of them to turn in to the conference their materials (notes, slides, etc.) one month prior to their timeslot. Then send these materials to the other half of the panelists, who in putting together their talks should in some way acknowledge and respond to the first half’s. In short: force a conversation to happen across the panel. (Bonus outcome: no first-draft papers that were written on the plane ride over.)
Strategize a few They-Said/They-Said panels. I say “strategize” because these can’t just go to anyone, but similar to the above, I’d much rather watch Writer A and Writer B size each other up at the dais on where they each stand on, say, place in nonfiction—with more of a two-way interview format going on than, of course, a debate—than I would Writer A talk, then Writer B, then Writer C, and then Writer D. A and B don’t need to disagree on anything, but each should have strong, new ideas and be curious about the other’s. Here’s a model in print of what I’m talking about, with Jennifer Egan and George Saunders talking about the future in fiction.
On- and offsite readings need to showcase unpublished work in progress. We can all get access to polished work through the books/journals they’re in, but what’s hard to get access to is an artist in the midst of a project—except, of course, when we convene each year. So let’s take advantage of that moment by getting exposure to, and then maybe talking about, the anxiety of being only partially done with something.
Accept only panels that have a diverse body of writers. I was talking about this with a friend at NonfictioNow. They blamed the whitewashed nature of the conference for its paucity of new ideas. And I thought: Wait, it’s not like the only new ideas are about race or gender. And then I realized: This wasn’t their point. It’s not that the only new ideas in writing, or the academy, anymore have to do with identity. It’s that a diverse environment stewards the airing and dissemination of new ideas. We conference in order to share new ideas. Put a bunch of different people in a room and you’ll end up with a dozen new ideas before lunch. Try it with people who share most things in common, and odds are those commonalities will get celebrated or reminisced about. Those are old ideas. They’re maybe even tired ideas. A writers’ conference shouldn’t be a family reunion, as much as we all annually miss each other.
I need to run to an appointment here, but that’s just a few off the top of my head. There are imaginative ways of doing anything. AWP is like the missionary position of conferences. Let’s all try to be sexier.
I went to this conference a couple weeks ago, and then had a visit from the goon squad (i.e. my parents). Only now getting to think about it. It’s a brief list. The biggest lesson I learned is that if you organize a panel where you come prepared with some new ideas, minimal slides to project so folks have something to look at, and a Q&A format that loosely lets panelists talk casually about their ideas and what interests them, strangers for days afterward will come up to you in hallways to thank you effusively for not making them sit still for 75 minutes listening to academics read short papers.
Other lessons, some of them dubious:
When it comes to the question of what’s not allowed in nonfiction, the only answers I can satisfactorily come up with are behavioral. Or attitudinal. You can’t patronize or talk down to the reader. You can’t think you’re smarter than the reader. You can’t be boring. Etc. When it comes to what you can say or how you can say it, everything is fair game.
I’m not, then, interested in conversations about what writers should or should not do in an essay, or how other writers grappled to justify their formal or semantic choices.
Every journey—be it a travelogue or a tour through memories—is a journey into the unknown. Otherwise it’s a commute.
In conversation with someone, Lawrence Weschler reportedly said, “The job of the writer is to remind the reader of something.” As though we’re all pieces of string around the finger.
Other than preparing you for a job in the professoriat, what a PhD in nonfiction is great at is narrowing the scope of your writing to someplace highly specified, and encouraging you to talk about that writing in academic terms, not aesthetic ones.
A misfire happened sometime in the 1980s (or whenever AWP first started), where writers—wanting, like at MLA, to meet and share their work and scholarly developments on the craft of writing—adopted the academic conference as their model for doing so. The 75-minute panel where 4 or 5 people read papers on new research (i.e., the academic conference) is a quick and easy way for academics to absorb that research. Academic papers in print would take hours to read aloud and are, by necessity, dull and full of citations—in comparison, a panel talk is a treat. An injection of new ideas. Writers, though, don’t publish their research on craft or aesthetics in academic journals (AWP’s Writers’ Chronicle being the notable and often-dull exception), but for whatever reason the default at a writers’ conference is to read pre-written papers.
I have a series of questions. Why, if we’re creative writers, are those papers so dull and hard to listen to? And why, if we’re writers of nonfiction, aren’t we better at writing this kind of nonfiction? Can’t it, also, be creative? And what, in the end, is it about the academy that it could lead hundreds of writers—i.e. creative types—to get so uncreative when it comes to the model it adopts for its (bi-)annual meetings?
I saw all of one mile of Flagstaff, Arizona, and feel qualified to say it’s a great town. Gorgeous and full of good people.
More on academics: the biggest nonfiction books this year, at least on my radar, were Coates’s Between the World and Me and Rankine’s Citizen. I don’t think I heard a single person mention these books in the three days of panels. I did hear Montaigne’s name mentioned several dozen times each day, though. “NonfictioNow 2015” proved a misnomer.
Georgia Review and Passages North are some pretty great places for essays. Now, let’s start a Kickstarter to help the latter become a thinner semiannual.
Rumors are the next conference will be in Reyjavik, which means attendance chiefly from tenured academics whose universities will subsidize that pricey trip, which given the state of the academy will probably translate to even less diversity than I saw this year.
Perhaps a name change is in order. NonfictionAgo-Go? NonFrictioNow?
From Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, which is the best collection I’ve found of recent (and historical) findings in cognitive science that explain how our brains work and how we might treat them better as a result. This bit specifically is Very Good because of how it articulates a problem with beginning writers that I’ve noticed but never been able to characterize before:
When I was in high school or college, trying to write an essay or research paper, I was forever looking for someone else’s thinking to rely on. I would hunt for some article written by an expert that was as similar as possible to the assignment. This perfect “model” essay never existed, or I never found it, so I’d end up stringing together quotes and ideas from the articles and books I had looked through. If someone else said it, I figured it must be insightful. In my defense, this isn’t all bad. When looking into the emergence of Christianity in ancient Rome, we should know who the experts are and what they think. The problem is that, when we’re embarking on a research project—especially when we’re younger—we don’t necessarily know how to identify those intellectual landmarks. Often, we don’t even know they exist. Through high school and much of college, I remember longing for someone to tell me how to proceed, sinking into a passing, tentative frame of mind, a fear of embarrassment trumping any real curiosity or conviction. The result was that I rarely consulted the wisdom of the one thinker I had easy access to: myself. I was so busy looking for better, smarter opinions that I had trouble writing—or thinking—with any confidence.
The solution Carey gives comes from a teacher named, no shit, Ronda Leathers Dively. Instead of assigning 6 short papers, she assigned one long one, with 5 short response papers to 5 different kinds of sources toward the semester-long project. Students then gradually got immersed in their topics and became scrutinous experts on the source material out there.
When it came time to write the paper, they were comfortable thinking on the page.
With little fanfare other than a daily Tweet about it, the comedian Josh Fadem has been writing a short story every day for a year, and then posting it to his blog. On the whole, the stories are funny, sometimes bawdy, and sometimes sad or even heartbreaking. Often uplifting or inspiring. One of my favorite moments comes in “The Introspective Human Men’s Club”, when a robot pretending to be a person misspeaks and nearly breaks his cover:
The robot pretending to be a person made a mistake. It was eerily similar to human beings in that it even made human mistakes like letting true motives, that were meant to remain concealed, slip. He was just as human as the rest of them. He even felt shame and embarrassment for his learned imperfection.
Tomorrow marks the publication of his 365th story. (As of “press time” he doesn’t yet know what it’ll be about.) On the eve of such an achievement, I asked him some questions about comedy, short-stories, and the impetus behind the whole project.
You write for TV and you write your own standup material and you write sketch comedy—all of which are genres that seem to get good attention from the public. Why, then, did you decide to write short stories, which like 1 percent of the public ever talks about?
Thanks for your interest! It sort of turned into being something I could do, and put out, and have control over, where the success or the reaction of them didn’t matter in the same way writing for someone else, or even acting for someone does. I could do it and act like no one was watching, but still put it out there and say, “Check this out!” No one is going to give me a deal based off a one-page story called “Pussydad’s Big Farm” (not a story I wrote, but could have easily been). I’m not competing, it just turned into a thing to do for fun and practice. (more…)
That link takes you to a post on the best approach to story structure, “from Aristotle to Dramatica” (which from what I can tell is some new potentially trademarked schema for analyzing narrative structure that after this post I’ll read because like maybe it’ll be useful?). Why it was disconcerting is that one of things that’s made Superjail! a new favorite is how awe-somely it seems to disregard story structure.
Summary: The Warden is a manic, possibly magical Wonka-type genius who owns Superjail!, which has a seemingly endless supply of hyperviolent criminals that have to be kept at bay. To do this job, the Warden has Jailbot: a floating superfast robot with any number of weapons hiding somewhere in its fuselage; and Alice: a brawny sexed-up prison guard who readily smashes the skull in of any out-of-line convict. Also there’s Jared, a kind of man Friday/admin assistant. Oh right and there are these Eurotrash alien twins with whiteblond hair and dark unibrows who teleport in and out of scenes and seem to regard Superjail as an arena for their practical jokes and chicanery.
Superjail exists underneath a volcano that is inside another volcano (and yet, each episode, a rockabilly jailbird named Jackknife finds a way to escape). I both want to go there and want never to go there.
This is my song of 2015. I heard it during an Adult Swim bump that was chiefly about nipples. Not one of their best. It was too short to Shazam, or nothing came up, so I took to Adult Swim Bump Forums (yes they exist, and yes there is more than one) and posed the question to the group and within a day they got back to me. All I heard on the bump was the first 8 bars or so, and then a bit from the outro. I was very pleased to find the rest of the song even better:
I found chords for the song online but they’re mostly wrong. Here’s the song in full:
E A D G B e E A D G B E
Gmaj7: 3 2 0 0 0 2 Cmaj7: x 3 2 0 0 3
Dsus4: 5 5 7 7 7 7 D1: 5 5 7 7 7 5
A: x 0 2 2 2 0 F#m: 2 4 4 2 2 2
D2: x x 0 2 3 2 F#dim: x x 0 2 2 2
[Gmaj7 Cmaj7 Dsus4/D1 Cmaj7] x2
Is it depression or disease?
Dsus4 D1 Cmaj7
Tell it to the millipedes.
The casserole was good,
and the drives were so nice.
Welcome to the worst part of your life.
A F#m D2/F#dim Cmaj7
I'm hard to fix because
it took me so goddamn long
to figure out that I broke down.
(Verse chords over weird synth solo.)
Mold spores fill my lungs.
The silverfish hide in the venetian blinds
in the wintertime.
In the bathroom,
With the shower running and my clothes on
I figured out that I hate you all.
I'm hard to fix because it took me so goddamn long
to figure out that I broke down.
Hold Cmaj7 for many bars, then back to Verse chords until out.
“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time, I say, belching out weed smoke. The light is frayed grayscale. Empty bottles turret the tabletops.
“BACK IN TIME!” KJ shouts. “Fucking Huey Lewis and the News!”
“Fireworks over Riverbend Rally and jumping from motorboats and weed in the ditches. Camping and skinny-dipping when the fire started going out.” I go on and on, laughing to myself, eyes sewn shut. “It was like Grease or something. Cruising Main Street and fistfights. Dances after football games and homecoming parades. It was all Mayberry and shit.”
“MAYBERRY! MOTHERFUCKING MAYBERRY!” KJ yells, standing. He mutters something about pissing and uses the wall to feel his way out of the room.
“It’s called Iowa, Happy,” Ronnie says. “No bad guys come from Iowa Falls. Not until Happy Lemon! Yeah, playa!” He laughs and nods, then says that nothing was better than SoCal back in the day.
“Stockton,” Tree says solemnly, and pretends to pour his beer on the floor. “Get that shit right.”
“Shiiiiiit, bro!” Ronnie leans back into the couch and smiles. “Fuck that place.”
I laugh and keep talking, but hardly anyone is listening anymore. Tom and Tree and Ian are watching TV and playing cards. KJ comes back and passes out cold, and Ronnie is blazed. I chug and mumble to myself about fields of soybeans and corncribs in the moonlight. Gravel jamming through the countryside in old Chevelles. Getting high and the Doors and tripping our balls off and Black Sabbath.
“We had fucking birds in the freezer, man.”
“What the fuck did you say, Happy?” Ian turns.
“Pull it together, man! You’re hardly speaking English.”
Everyone is looking at me.
“Birds. We had dead ones … dead birds in the freezer. I’d get some ice, and there one would be. Dead grackles, man. A house finch. Fucking birds, you know? A bird. Wings and beaks and shit? Birds.”
“GRACKLE!” KJ is awake again. “Fucking grackles. That’s crazy good.”
“You serious? That’s fucked up is what it is.”
“Loco shit, Happy.” Ronnie laughs. “But my moms had a taco stand!”
“What? A taco van?”
“Naaaw, I’m playing, you fool! Fucking taco stand.” Ronnie slaps his thigh. “Jesus, no, silly fucks. It was all concrete jungle for me. Ghetto birds!”
“We had birds in the freezer.”
“Happy’s studying too much, it’s making him hallucinate. He thinks he’s fucking Audubon.”
“Assholes.” I pick a shred of loose chew from my lip. “Ma and Bob are artists, man. We had wild shitâ€”bowling balls rolling around the floors, busted mirrors on the walls. Snakeskins tacked above the dinner table. It was awesome.” I shake my head and try to laugh it off. I don’t usually talk to my teammates about how I was raised because I want to fit in with them. “Fuckin’ loved it.” I smile, but part of me has always resented it.
“Happy, you’re a goofy bastard. You know that homes?”
This is a passage from the opening chapter of Lemon’s memoir. The list of “rules”â€”by which I mean the things I’ve been trained to teach my students for what constitutes “good writing”â€”this dialogue breaks is long. It doesn’t progress the plot. It doesn’t reveal anything about the personalities of the characters (not exactly true but I’ll come back to this). It doesn’t edit natural dialogueâ€”langy, repetitive, fragmentaryâ€”to make it literary and intelligible.
In short: this shit would get annihilated in a workshop.
Which makes it great. It’s the most NFive dialogue I’ve read in a very long time. We get so much of it throughout Lemon’s memoir of brain injury, and gradually I came to feel so fully there in the scene. It’s Knausgaardian maybe. Lemon’s greatest talent is his ability (not just through dialogue; chiefly through sensory detail) to so fully recreate the moments of his past, and to edit this dialogue as we naturally tend to as writers would be to lie about the moment. It’s stunning.
But stunning only in retrospect. I wasn’t much “amazed” by the book as others often are by “good writing”â€”that is, I didn’t feel the language of the book was trying to dazzle me by its goodness. Sure, there are lots of watch-me-now verbs, but more so I was struck by this goofball dialogue. It’s how these characters talk, and when you spend enough time among them you start to hear the very subtle emotional shifts among such nonstop braggadocio.
I loved it. I loved watching literary dialogue get opened up like this.
Contrary to such alarmist demands [from Obama et al that we need to add more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates], Falling Behind? makes a convincing case that even now the US has all the high-tech brains and bodies it needs, or at least that the economy can absorb. Teitelbaum points out that â€œUS higher education routinely awards more degrees in science and engineering than can be employed in science and engineering occupations.â€ Recent reports reinforce his claim. A 2014 study by the National Science Board found that of 19.5 million holders of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only 5.4 million were working in those fields, and a good question is what they do instead. The Center for Economic Policy and Research, tracing graduates from 2010 through 2014, discovered that 28 percent of engineers and 38 percent of computer sciencetists [sic!] were either unemployed or holding jobs that did not need their training.
Oh, so did I! But I didn’t want that. I wanted to be an extrovert! An extrovert!
This passage comes at page 336 (of 420-some) of the third volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, after he reads about the key difference between Dalglish and his Liverpool soccer teammate Kevin Keegan. It’s simply great, the passage. One concern my NF students have is how to write from the perspective of our younger selves. Are you allowed to use words you wouldn’t have used when you were 7? If no: how do you make the experience interesting and insightful? If yes: how do you make it feel authentic and not as though you’re now, as an author, giving your young self big ideas you never had?
This passage is great for the way it shows us how. Knausgaard gives the writing a childish syntax (the short sentences, the single-sentence paragraphs, the repetition) while allowing himself an adult diction (the “mental cancer” bit) that can put the passage into a greater perspective. In other words, the syntax lets us hear and feel his despair, and the diction tells us something of what that experience was like or what it meant.