Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘video’

11 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

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“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”

Neil Gaiman knows a thing or two about the secret of the creative life. In this mashup of Gaiman’s Nerdist podcast interview and scenes from films about writers, video-monger Brandon Farley captures the essence of Gaiman’s philosophy on writing and his advice to aspiring writers — a fine addition to celebrated authors’ collected wisdom on the craft. Transcript highlights below.

Echoing E. B. White, who famously scoffed that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” and like Chuck Close, who declared that “inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” and like Tchaikovsky, who admonished that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Gaiman argues that the true muse of writing lies not in divine inspiration but in unrelenting persistence of effort and force of will:

If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.” … And the weird thing is that six months later, or a year later, you’re going to look back and you’re not going to remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you wrote because they had to be written.

On the exhilarating joy of writing and the stalwart showing up that makes it possible:

The process of writing can be magical — there times when you step out of an upper-floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it’s absolute and utter happiness. Mostly, it’s a process of putting one word after another.

On grit as the driving force of creative growth, reiterating the third of his 8 rules of writing:

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.

On why true creativity requires eclectic influences, wide interests, and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting:

If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies — Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.

Gaiman’s most important piece of advice, for the writer who has mastered basic technique and is ready to begin writing, echoes the fifth of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word:

Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, see Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling

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“Any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.”

Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era’s greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the New Millennium, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Despite the poor sound and video quality, this interview recorded at the event takes us on a wide-ranging tour of Gould’s singular mind, exploring such timelessly fascinating subjects as the secret of great writing, the importance of history in science, the evolution of evolutionary theory, and the challenges to science literacy among the general public.

Transcript highlights below.

When the interviewer suggests that Gould is “a man on a mission to teach us how to think about evolution correctly,” he rebuts with a heartening testament to the only true reason to do anything, one articulated even more passionately by Ray Bradbury and by Charles Bukowski:

If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself — any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while — once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.

On the qualities his favorite essays have in common:

The [essays] I like best best usually take up an unknown or an odd subject, something that was was never written about — but — if you can use something that is unknown to illustrate a larger generality, then I really get pleased.

On why pattern-recognition is the key to human creativity and fundamental to our evolutionary wiring for storytelling — something Gould himself excelled at:

The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.

Though he shares some of Richard Feynman’s concerns about the failures of scientific culture in modern society, specifically regarding creationism vs. evolution, Gould holds greater faith in the supremacy of critical thinking over ignorance. When the interviewer marvels how he can be so popular given he writes about evolution in a country that still teaches creationism in some school curricula, Gould replies:

Why should it be contradictory that writers on evolution be popular? Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority in this country, and they make more noise than their numbers. And it’s a distressing issue, and it’s true that the vast majority of Americans don’t know a lot about the history of life and don’t think a lot about evolution — but it’s such an intrinsically fascinating subject that the majority of Americans are very favorable for science and very interested in it, and there’s hardly a concept that’s been discovered by science that’s more intrinsically exciting to people than evolution and the study of how life came to be as it is.

For more of Gould’s enduring genius of science communication, see his extensive literary legacy and the especially wonderful, bittersweet I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final collection of his essays, originally released months after Gould’s death in 2002 and republished in 2012 with a brilliant cover by Sam Potts.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Art of the Soundbite

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“A few words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite.”

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the American Museum of Natural History on the topic of popularizing science online, alongside such humbling science communicators as Elise Andrew of I Fucking Love Science, the delightful duo behind AsapSCIENCE (), Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop, and Annalee Newitz of io9. As if to draw an audience of 900 science enthusiasts wasn’t enough of a treat, at the end of our talk none other than modern-day cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson made a surprise cameo.

Left to right: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Maria Popova, Elise Andrew, Emily Graslie, Mitchell Moffit, Gregory Brown, Annalee Newitz, and AMNH curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low (Photograph © AMNH/R. Mickens)

After the talk, I got to ask Dr. Tyson — the living antidote to Susan Sontag’s concerns about aphorisms — the following question:

We live in a sort of soundbite culture, where soundbites very frequently become reductionism. And yet you seem so eloquent and articulate, especially on Twitter — a form that does not lend itself to eloquence especially well. How do you balance being very quotable with not being reductionistic?

Apart from the misunderstanding that I’m criticizing his short-form eloquence, when in fact I was complimenting his mastery of the soundbite form, Tyson’s answer is expectedly brilliant, packed with essential media literacy and wisdom for anyone engaged in the art of communication, which is practically everyone with a beating heart and firing neurons. Particularly fantastic is his anecdote of how he learned about the value of the soundbite and taught himself its craft:

Reductionism is one of the words I swore I would never use in my entire life. … I don’t have a problem with soundbites.

[A few] words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite. And don’t think that soundbites aren’t useful if they don’t contain a curriculum. A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more. … Take the moment to stimulate interest, and upon doing that you have set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven because that soundbite was so tasty — why do you think we call them bites?

And it’s kind of what Twitter is — it’s almost like haiku, actually. … When I compose a tweet, I feel like [Rodin] who said, “When I make a sculpture, I just cut away everything that isn’t the man or the woman, and then that’s what’s left.” … You trim, you carve the words such that all that’s left is the most important concept communicated in the simplest, most direct way. And that does not mean using big words. So I don’t have a problem with that.

Is it possible to love the man even more? Oh yes, yes it is — I couldn’t resist whipping this wisdom all up into an animated GIF:

For more of Tyson’s wisdom, see his meditations on the secret of genius and the most important fact about the universe.

Should you choose to treat yourself to a mental stimulation break of the longer kind, watch the entire two-hour talk below, then complement it with Richard Feynman on the role of scientific culture in modern society.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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