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Order to the Chaos of Life: Isabel Allende on Writing

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

Literary history is ripe with eloquent attempts to answer the ever-elusive question of why writers write. For George Orwell, it resulted from four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as precious access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), which also gave us Mary Karr’s poignant answer, celebrated Chilean American author Isabel Allende offers one of the most poetic yet practical responses to the grand question.

Allende shares in Kurt Vonnegut’s insistence on rooting storytelling in personal experience and writes:

I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.

Like Mark Twain, who famously instructed a rival to “use the right word, not its second cousin,” Allende advocates for the precision of language as the ultimate resource:

It’s so important for me, finding the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. I’m very picky about that because it’s the only material we have: words. But they are free. No matter how many syllables they have: free! You can use as many as you want, forever.

In fact, her style is deeply reminiscent of beloved French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin’s — and Allende herself offers a beautiful hypothesis about a common thread:

I try to write beautifully, but accessibly. In the romance languages, Spanish, French, Italian, there’s a flowery way of saying things that does not exist in English. My husband says he can always tell when he gets a letter in Spanish: the envelope is heavy. In English a letter is a paragraph. You go straight to the point. In Spanish that’s impolite. Reading in English, living in English, has taught me to make language as beautiful as possible, but precise. Excessive adjectives, excessive description — skip it, it’s unnecessary. Speaking English has made my writing less cluttered. I try to read House of the Spirits now, and I can’t. Oh my God, so many adjectives! Why? Just use one good noun instead of three adjectives.

She reflects on the osmotic balance between intuition and rationality in the writing process:

Fiction happens in the womb. It doesn’t get processed in the mind until you do the editing.

Though many famous writers have notoriously deliberate routines and rituals, Allende’s is among the most unusual and rigorous. Ultimately, however, she echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”), E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) and Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), stressing the importance of work ethic over the proverbial muse:

I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell. Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person. I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed — because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

Like Neil Gaiman, who famously advised to “keep moving” because “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Allende shares a cautionary observation:

I correct to the point of exhaustion, and then finally I say I give up. It’s never quite finished, and I suppose it could always be better, but I do the best I can. In time, I’ve learned to avoid overcorrecting. When I got my first computer and I realized how easy it was to change things ad infinitum, my style became very stiff.

But her most profound test of creative resilience came from deeply untethering personal tragedy:

My daughter, Paula, died on December 6, 1992. On January 7, 1993, my mother said, ‘Tomorrow is January eighth. If you don’t write, you’re going to die.’ She gave me the 180 letters I’d written to her while Paula was in a coma, and then she went to Macy’s. When my mother came back six hours later, I was in a pool of tears, but I’d written the first pages of Paula. Writing is always giving some sort of order to the chaos of life. It organizes life and memory. To this day, the responses of the readers help me to feel my daughter alive.

Turning an eye towards the future of storytelling, Allende advocates for medium-agnosticism, reminding us that a great story will always be a great story, wherever it lives — so long as it lives in the heart:

Storytelling and literature will exist always, but what shape will it take? Will we write novels to be performed? The story will exist, but how, I don’t know. The way my stories are told today is by being published in the form of a book. In the future, if that’s not the way to tell a story, I’ll adapt.

She ends with three pieces of advice for aspiring writers:

  • It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.
  • When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.
  • When you tell a story in the kitchen to a friend, it’s full of mistakes and repetitions. It’s good to avoid that in literature, but still, a story should feel like a conversation. It’s not a lecture.

Allende’s moving 2007 TED talk will give you an even deeper appreciation for her singular approach to storytelling:

The rest of Why We Write features insights and advice on the craft from such contemporary icons as Jennifer Egan, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, and James Frey, among others. Pair it with 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, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph via The Paris Review

BP

Our Friend the Atom: Disney’s 1956 Illustrated Propaganda for Nuclear Energy

“Atomic science began as positive, creative thought.”

Walt Disney was no stranger to propaganda, from his wartime anti-Nazi animations to his 1955 eulogy for space exploration, and even his internal company culture. In 1956, just over a decade after the atomic bomb showed the world the devastating power of nuclear weapons, Disney partnered with German physicist Heinz Haber, a professor at USC and personal science consultant to the legendary animator, to produce Our Friend the Atom (public library) — a gloriously illustrated 165-page tome extolling the promise of atomic power as a generative rather than destructive force. The illustrations, representing twenty-two Disney artists — twenty-one men and one woman — with a vibrant mid-century aesthetic somewhere between Saul Bass’s posters, The Provensens’ children’s books, and the anatomical illustrations of The Human Body, cover everything from the Ancient Greeks’ philosophies of matter to Curie and Einstein to the splitting of the atom and its promise for the future.

Walt himself writes in the foreword, with a nod to how science fiction pioneer Jules Verne presaged modern technology and the gender-biased pronouns typical of the era:

Fiction often has a strange way of becoming fact. Not long ago we produced a motion picture based on the immortal tale 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, featuring the famous submarine ‘Nautilus.’ According to that story the craft was powered by a magic force.

Today the tale has come true. A modern namesake of the old fairy ship — the submarine ‘Nautilus’ of the United States Navy — has become the world’s first atom-powered ship. It is proof of the useful power of the atom that will drive the machines of our atomic age.

The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand, and so we long had plans to tell the story of the atom. In fact, we considered it so important that we embarked on several atomic projects. … Of course, we don’t pretend to be scientists — we are story tellers. But we combine the tools of our trade with the knowledge of experts.

[…]

The story of the atom is a fascinating tale of human quest for knowledge, a story of scientific adventure and success. Atomic science has borne many fruits, and the harnessing of the atom’s power is only the spectacular end result. It acme about through the work of many inspired men whose ideas formed a kind of chain reaction of thoughts. These men came from all civilized nations, and from centuries as far back as 400 B.C.

Atomic science began as positive, creative thought. It has created modern science with its many benefits for mankind. In this sense our book tries to make it clear to you that we can indeed look upon the atom as our friend.

The prologue sets the stage for the duality of atomic energy and the book’s choice to focus on the positive:

Deep in the tiny atom lies hidden a tremendous force. This force has entered the scene of our modern world as a most frightening power of destruction, more fearful and devastating than man ever thought possible.

We all know of the story of the military atom, and we all wish that it weren’t true. For many obvious reasons it would be better if it weren’t real, but just a rousing tale. It does have all the earmarks of a drama: a frightful terror, which everyone knows exists, a sinister threat, mystery and secrecy. It’s a perfect tale of horror!

But, fortunately, the story is not yet finished. So far, the atom is a superb villain. Its power of destruction is foremost in our minds. But the same power can be put to use for creation, for the welfare of all mankind.

Complement Our Friend the Atom with these wonderful vintage science ads from the same era.

BP

Galileo vs. God: The Father of Modern Science on Religion, Truth, and Human Nature

“Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”

“As I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame,” Richard Feynman famously wrote in lamenting the “actively, intensely unscientific” state of mainstream culture. But true and tragic as that might be to a degree, we owe much of the enormous scientific progress we’ve made in the past millennium to Galileo himself, father of modern science. It seems fitting, in light of the recent historic papal resignation, to revisit Galileo’s monumental impact on the rift between science and religion as he dethroned Earth from the center of the heavens with his discovery of heliocentrism, sparking the Scientific Revolution.

galileo_letter

In 1615, as the Roman Inquisition was beginning to investigate his heretical heliocentric model of the universe, Galileo — who knew how to flatter his way to support — wrote to Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany. The lengthy letter, found in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (public library), explores the relationship between science and scripture. Galileo bemoans his critics who “remaining hostile not so much toward the things in question as toward their discoverer” and follows the three rules to refuting any argument that Susan Sontag would outline half a millennium later, making an eloquent case for why blind adherence to sacred texts shouldn’t be used to disarm the validity of scientific truth.

He begins:

To the Most Serene Grand Duchess Mother:

Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors-as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences. They seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment, and growth of the arts; not their diminution or destruction.

Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill-suited to their purposes.

[…]

These men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible. These they apply with little judgement to the refutation of arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to.

Galileo laments a tendency of the human spirit to more easily rally around bullying than around celebrating, something we’ve seen compounded by the anonymity of the web today. He writes:

It is human nature to take up causes whereby a man may oppress his neighbor, no matter how unjustly, rather than those from which a man may receive some just encouragement.

Condemning the practice of taking biblical passages at face value without critical thinking and deeper semantic reflection — something that persists even today in matters of creationism vs. evolution and marriage equality — Galileo argues, as Neil deGrasse Tyson did five centuries later, that abandoning reason and evidence is a sign of both spiritual and intellectual laziness:

Now as to the false aspersions which they so unjustly seek to cast upon me, I have thought it necessary to justify myself in the eyes of all men, whose judgment in matters of religion and of reputation I must hold in great esteem. I shall therefore discourse of the particulars which these men produce to make this opinion detested and to have it condemned not merely as false but as heretical. To this end they make a shield of their hypocritical zeal for religion. They go about invoking the Bible, which they would have minister to their deceitful purposes. Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, if I am not mistaken, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters — where faith is not involved — they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense.

[…]

Yet even in those propositions which are not matters of faith, this authority ought to be preferred over that of all human writings which are supported only by bare assertions or probable arguments, and not set forth in a demonstrative way. This I hold to be necessary and proper to the same extent that divine wisdom surpasses all human judgment and conjecture.

But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.

He stresses the importance of interpreters and sense-makers in extracting truth from scripture, admonishing against the tendency to form an opinion because it is popular and thus easy, rather than because it is wise:

People who are unable to understand perfectly both the Bible and the science far outnumber those who do understand them. The former, glancing superficially through the Bible, would arrogate to themselves the authority to decree upon every question of physics on the strength of some word which they have misunderstood, and which was employed by the sacred authors for some different purpose. And the smaller number of understanding men could not dam up the furious torrent of such people, who would gain the majority of followers simply because it is much more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom without effort or study than to consume oneself tirelessly in the most laborious disciplines.

Speaking to the same friction between “the Truth of the Universe” and “human truth” that Einstein and Tagore debated centuries later, Galileo points out that rather than an antidote to the divine, nature itself is a manifestation of divinity:

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.

At the heart of Galileo’s argument is a reminder that it is ignorance that drives knowledge; he writes:

Hence I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that ‘Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know.’

[…]

Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation? I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: “That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”

Of those who tend to conflate opinion with fact, Galileo admonishes:

Let them freely admit that although they may argue that a position is false, it is not in their power to censure a position as erroneous.

Sharing in the spirit of Bertrand Russell’s famous words“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Galileo calls for standing by personal convictions even when they prove unpopular amongst the masses:

In my opinion no one … should close the road to free philosophizing about mundane and physical things, as if everything had already been discovered and revealed with certainty. Nor should it be considered rash not to be satisfied with those opinions which have become common. No one should be scorned in physical disputes for not holding to the opinions which happen to please other people best…

In the concluding paragraphs, Galileo admonishes against confirmation bias and the filter bubble of information that causes an echo chamber of opinion for those who would rather be self-righteous than fully understand:

Those who believe an argument to be false may much more easily find the fallacies in it than men who consider it to be true and conclusive. … The more the adherents of an opinion turn over their pages, examine the arguments, repeat the observations, and compare the experiences, the more they will be confirmed in that belief.

Complement this with Richard Feynman on the role of scientific culture in modern society.

BP

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