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Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her rules. My favorite is Zadie Smith’s list — an exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic, and a fine addition to this ongoing omnibus of great writers’ advice on the craft.

Zadie Smith (Photograph: Francesco Guidicini)

Smith counsels:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

What a fine addition to famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, 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.

Complement with Smith on the psychology of the two types of writers.

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The Science of Orgasms and Your Brain on Porn

Inside the complex tangle of biology and behavior that shapes our relationship with and experience of sex.

We’ve already explored the origins of sex, the neurochemistry of heartbreak, and how drugs affect desire. But what, exactly, happens in the brain when the body belts out its ultimate anthem of sexual triumph? Count on creative duo Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, better known as AsapSCIENCE — who have previously explained how music enchants the brain and what science teaches us about curing hangovers — to break down the body’s response during orgasm:

But what about sexual experiences that don’t involve direct contact with a partner? What happens inside the brain then is arguably even more intriguing. In this talk from TEDxGlasgow, physiology teacher Gary Wilson peels the curtain on the complex scientific processes that accompany, and perpetuate, the world’s addiction to pornography. Specifically, he looks at how the Coolidge effect fuels internet porn:

For more on this ceaselessly fascinating tangle of biology and behavior, see the recently released The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction by neuroscientist Larry Young and journalist Brian Alexander, who take us inside the living brain to explore how its neurotransmitters, hormones, and circuits shape the very behaviors we find ourselves most invested in.

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The Good Girls Revolt: The Untold Story of the 1970 Lawsuit That Changed the Modern Workplace

How the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media shaped the modern workplace.

In the summer of 2006, a young journalist named Jessica Bennett started as an intern at Newsweek. Shortly thereafter, three guys showed up as interns and by the end of the summer, all three of them were offered jobs but Jessica — who had been given a number of their stories to rewrite — wasn’t. Once she eventually was, a year later, she found herself getting worse assignments and fewer published articles than her less experienced male colleagues. Meanwhile, her best friend, Jesse Ellison, another Newsweek writer, had just found out that the guy who had replaced her in her previous position was hired at a significantly higher salary.

At first, it didn’t even occur to the young women — who had come of age in the post-feminist era — that there might be a gender issue at work, especially at a magazine where women comprised 40% of the masthead and the managing editor was female. But the deeply engrained boy’s-club mentality of day-to-day management became increasingly evident and frustrating for many of the women on the staff, who had started pooling together and discussing the issue. Then, one day, Tony Skaggs, a veteran researcher in the magazine’s library, walked into Newsweek video producer Jen Molina’s office and told her that decades earlier, the women at Newsweek had sued the magazine for gender-based discrimination. Shocked, Molina Googled the lawsuit but found nothing — a particularly besetting outcome for those of us who belong to the generation nursed on the notion that if it isn’t Googleable, it doesn’t exist.

In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), Lynn Povich, one of the original Newsweek staffers who helmed the watershed lawsuit, tells its previously untold story, building — or, perhaps, deconstructing — around it a larger narrative about the tectonic shifts in gender politics in the past four decades and where this leaves us today. Not unlike Mad Men, it exposes the many social, cultural, and legal limits for women at the time, but also tells what Povich calls a “coming-of-age story about a generation of ‘good girls’ who found [themselves] in the revolutionary ’60s.” Perhaps most jarring of all, however, is that even as we read on as modern people who take pride in the progress of the past half-century, we become increasingly aware of the subtler but no less damaging sexist undercurrents that, forty years later, still permeate many social structures and cultural institutions.

At Newsweek, our ‘problem that had no name’ in the mid-1960s was sexism, pure and simple. At both Time and Newsweek, only men were hired as writers. Women were almost always hired on the mail desk or as fact checkers and rarely promoted to reporter or writer. Even with similar credentials, women generally ended up in lesser positions than men. One summer, two graduates of the Columbia Journalism School were hired – he as a writer and she as a researcher/reporter. That’s just the way it was, and we all accepted it.

Until we didn’t. Just as young omen today are discovering that post-feminism isn’t really ‘post,’ we were discovering that civil rights didn’t include women’s rights. . . . We began to realize that something was very wrong in the Newsweek system. With great trepidation, we decided to take on what we saw as a massive injustice: a segregated system of journalism that divided research, reporting, writing, and editing roles solely on the basis of gender. We began organizing in secret, terrified that we would be found out — and fired — at any moment. For most of us middle-class ladies, standing up for our rights marked the first time we had done anything political or feminist. It would be the radicalizing act that gave us confidence and courage to find ourselves and stake our claim.

‘Women in Revolt,’ Newsweek, March 16, 1970

But what makes the lawsuit most striking is that it took place immediately after Newsweek ran a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement titled “Women in Revolt” in March of 1970, with a screaming cover featuring a naked woman bursting through a broken female-sex symbol. As the issue hit newsstands on that fateful Monday morning of March 16, 46 of Newsweek’s female employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the charge that they had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume subsidiary role” due entirely to their gender. It was the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media, and it garnered prolific news coverage around the world — some of which was itself appallingly emblematic of the sort of culturally condoned sexism at the heart of the lawsuit. Povich offers a chilling example:

The story in the New York Daily News, titled “Newshens Sue Newsweek of ‘Equal Rights,'” began, ‘Forty-six women on the staff of Newsweek magazine, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced today they were suing the magazine.

But the women, undeterred, moved forward with the suit. They had chosen Eleanor Holmes Norton, the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to represent them. Povich recalls a monumental moment at the packed press conference:

‘It is ironic,’ [Norton] said, waving a copy of the magazine, ‘that while Newsweek considers women’s grievances noteworthy enough for such a major coverage, it continues to maintain a policy of discrimination against the women on its own staff. . . . The statistics speak for themselves — there are more than fifty men writing at Newsweek, but only one woman.’ She pointed out that although the women were graduates of top colleges, held advanced degrees, and had published in major news journals, ‘Newsweek’s caste system relegates women with such credentials to research jobs almost exclusively and interminably.’

But the irony didn’t stop there. Povich recalls:

It was an exhilarating moment for us, and a shocking one for Newsweek’s editors, who couldn’t have been more surprised if their own daughters had risen up in revolt. We had been secretly strategizing for months, whispering behind closed doors, congregating int he Newsweek ladies’ room, and meeting in our apartments at night. As our numbers increased, we had hired a lawyer and were just reviewing our options when we were suddenly presented it with a truly lucky break. In early 1970, Newsweek’s editors decided that the new women’s liberation movement deserved a cover story. There was one problem, however: there were no women to write the piece.

Indeed, when the idea of a women’s liberation cover story first came up, the editors immediately realized they couldn’t have a man write it — but they didn’t trust any of the women on the staff with it. Instead, for the first time in the magazine’s history, they went outside the organizaton and hired Helen Dudar, a star writer at the New York Post, to write the piece. (Coincidentally or not, Dudar’s husband was one of Newsweek’s top writers.) As Povich recalls, this only galvanized the women at Newsweek, who then decided to time the lawsuit with the cover story’s release. The rest, as the saying goes, is history — but, oh, what riveting and reverberating history.

In an age when we celebrate how women are changing the face of media, The Good Girls Revolt is an essential piece of media history that shows us not only how far we’ve come but, with just the right amount of self-conscious cultural discomfort, how far we’re yet to go.

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