This semester I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: I ran a writers’ workshop, modeled after the many many fiction workshops I attended in college and at the Writing Seminars. But this one wasn’t about crafting a short story that exquisitely limned the emotional landscape of people almost exactly like me and my friends; it was for early-career scientists, and it was aimed at writing the 1000-word general-audience science article, the kind of thing I’ve mostly been writing since I gave up prose fiction a couple of decades ago.
And it worked! Not thanks to me so much as to the committed, insightful, extremely-willing-to-think-hard-about-craft group of eight students I had working with me, on Zoom, from around the US and in a couple of cases elsewhere.
Why did I want to do this? Because over the years a lot of young scientists have asked me how they can get into science writing and how they can combine it with a career in research. And the answer is not so much “here’s an editor you can contact” or “here’s what goes in a pitch letter,” it’s “learn to write a very specific kind of 1,000 word chunk of prose.” And that’s what we worked on.
I will probably do this again. It was really fun. And my real hope is that, just as Math Circles went from being a thing a few devoted Russian expats did in Cambridge and Oakland to something that every self-respecting math department runs, there will be Writing Scientists Workshops that don’t involve me at all, where groups of grad students and postdocs get together and read each others’ work seriously and reflectively and train themselves to be outward-facing scientists.
With that in mind, I wrote a pretty thorough account of how I ran the workshop, what we did, what things might usefully be changed, and what we spent our time talking about, here:
I got a lot of useful feedback from the participants, but maybe my favorite was the student who sent back a bullet-point list of all the advice about writing I’d given, filtered through her paraphrase. She’s a Russophone, and one of the bullet points was “емкость is great.” What is емкость? I’ve been asking all my Russian friends. It seems to mean something like “putting a lot of meaning into a few words.” That is, indeed, what the WSW is going for, and it is, indeed, great.
I still have a lot of text files from when I was in college and even high school, sequentially copied from floppy to floppy to hard drive to hard drive over the decades. I used to write poems and they were not good and neither is this one, but to my surprise it had some lines in it that I remembered but did not remember that I wrote myself. What was I doing with the line breaks though? I am pretty sure this would have been written in my junior year of college, maybe spring of 1992. Around this same time I submitted a short story to a magazine and the editor wrote back to me saying “free-floating anxiety cannot be what drives a narrative,” but I disagreed, obviously.
To a Crackpot
He eschews the shoulders of giants. He chooses instead the company of thin men, coffee-stained, stooped with knowledge. They huddle on the sidewalk, nodding, like crows or rabbis. He speaks: the world is hollow and we live on the inside. (Murmurs of assent.) There is a hole at the top where the water runs in. The sun is smaller than my hand, and the stars are smaller than the sun.
A woman walks by, drawing his eye. She has no idea. Beneath their feet, out in the dark, secret engines. The Earth turns like milk.
I was struck by the fact that this book was getting a huge amount of press, and I was clearly supposed to have heard of the author, Sally Rooney, but I had not. And when I asked people about this, I was told it was generational. Rooney is “a millennial author” and I am not a millennial reader. I took this as a challenge! Can I read millennially?
Here are some thoughts which I suppose contain plot spoilers if you are the sort of reader who wants to avoid those before reading the books. (I am.)
What I really like about the book is its strange and affecting choice to use a narrative voice which can go anywhere and see anything but cannot enter any of the main characters’ minds. Everything is done through dialogue and description of bodily motion. The narrator never speaks in the first person but somehow has a personality, is a kind of lonely spirit, which sometimes wanders away from the narrative action entirely and goes out into the night, while the characters keep talking inside the cozy, lighted house, where the narrator can no longer hear. (The only other recent book I can think of that does something like this is is J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River, but the purpose there is pretty different; that one is really going for, and achieving, outright spookiness.)
This choice is the central stylistic fact of the novel and every moment gets colored by it, as in a novel written in the second person.
There is a lot of sex in this book, for instance, and the fact that we are locked out of the human experience of it, just watching bodies roll over each other, makes it uncomfortable to read — frankly, kind of porny. By design, since the characters themselves are not really able to experience each other as people, even though at moments they think they’re so doing.
The story is broken up by emails from one character to another — in a normal novel these could be simply changes of register, a comfortable way to vary the style and bring in information about the characters without cramming it artificially into dialogue or reminiscence. But here, because we’ve been locked out of the characters’ minds, the artificiality of the form comes to the fore. We don’t experience the emails as direct contact with the character’s beliefs, but as performances, which is of course what letters actually are. And so the little philosophical essays that might otherwise be read as authorial thesis statements by proxy are, here, more like — what, affectations? Things the characters wear, like clothes, from which observers can tell what kind of people they are asserting themselves to be.
About two-thirds of the way through, the narrative breaks the rule and goes into Eileen’s mind for a reminiscence of her early romantic feeling for Simon, the man we’re watching her present-day romance with. (Simon is also Jesus, sort of.) I’m not sure why Rooney does this. In fact the book, which sets itself up very satisfyingly, doesn’t seem to know what to do once it has established its mood of eerie distance. The last part of the novel — back to the distant narrator, at this point — contains a lot of long monologues which feel purposeless and lack the snap of the very, very good renderings of speech earlier on. To be honest I had the feeling Rooney was tired of moving the characters around on the board and knows that in novels people traditionally settle down together in the end so that’s what happens. But this very assured and unconventional book doesn’t like having a conventional ending. On some level I think Rooney recognizes this, so puts the ending in a pair of letters rather than try to narrate it.
This sounds like I didn’t like it, but I did like it. Rooney set herself a difficult task and didn’t, it seems to me, bring it off; but most books don’t even try anything hard.
Anne Enright in the Guardian, who is very good on the strange power of the novel’s style, and who is completely won over by the ending that left me so unsatisfied.
Update: There is another read here, which is that I’m overthinking it and this is meant to be the sort of novel in which you feel about the characters the way you might about people you know, and just straightforwardly hope for certain outcomes for them, the way one does (I mean, I do) in The Age of Innocence or Elena Ferrante novels (I mean, the ones I’ve read.) If that’s the work the book is doing, it didn’t work for me (but I think it worked for others, like Anne Enright.)
Not gonna lie, it has always been a dream of mine, a marker of being a Real Writer, to do a New York Times Book Review “By the Book” interview, and this summer I did it. Really fun — I got to praise a lot of writers I truly admire (including Janet Malcolm, who I sort of hoped would read it, and who died the day before the interview came out.) and hopefully helped generate some publicity for Shape.
I also recently got beta access to Open AI’s “GPT-3” text-generation engine. So I thought it would be fun to give it part of my interview and see what happened if I asked it to continue.
Here are some results. What’s bold is text I supplied to GPT-3 (along with the whole text of the interview previous to that line.) This uses the davinci engine, with temperature set to 0.7.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I read “The Little House on the Prairie” series as it came out, and I think I really liked them. I reread “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” many times. I loved “The Hobbit” so much I would reread the whole thing and just skip the long chapters. The first adult book I read was “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers, when I was 10 or 11, because I loved the title so much. It was a little hard to get into because it was so slow, but I was so happy to be reading a book that was all about people being sad, because I was so sad!
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
“The Go-Between,” by L. P. Hartley. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s so perfect.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Note that GPT-3 has enough text to recognize this as a “By The Book” interview, because the two questions it generates are indeed on the standard list of questions that the NYTBR asks authors. “Temperature” is a measure of how constrained GPT-3 feels to pick the word it seems most likely at each stage. One cool thing about the interface is it gives you the probability distribution it drew from for each word. THe word “Heart” above, for instance, is one of the lowest-probability words in the above response; GPT-3 rated it the 11th most likely next word, with a probability of 0.8%. Top three were “Cat” (4.0%), “Aut” (1.7%), and “Fountain” (1.7%). Wait, “Aut”? Yeah — GPT-3 uses “tokens,” not words, and sometimes these are parts of words, or even just initial letters. I imagine “Aut” could have been the beginning of “Autobiography” or “Author.” Presumably running the algorithm at a lower temperature would have made it much more likely I’d have read something starting with “The Cat.” Having settled on “Heart,” the following word “is” came in with an 87% probability, far above the next most likely candidate, “of.”
In fact, it’s kind of cool how the OpenAI interface displays these probabilities, so I’m gonna screenshot and include:
Red means unlikely, green means likely — so you can see very clearly the red “Heart” and the green “Is.” Note that the standard questions from “By the Book” are almost all green once you get past the first word; you’re on a track the algorithm’s very confident about. “The Go-Between,” by L.P. Hartley is a real book, by the way, though not one I’d ever heard of, and not one I think my earlier responses could fairly be said to make you think I’d like. The answer itself, though, while it’s not my style, is very much “By the Book” style.
Here’s what you get at temperature 0:
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was a voracious reader, but I don’t remember any particular books. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room and a bird in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in
This is pretty typical. If you pick the most likely “next word” every time, you get stuck repeating yourself, getting more and more certain that staying in the loop is the right thing to do because after all it’s what you’ve been doing! The only even moderately low-probability words here occur when a new animal is introduced to the room.
What about temperature 1, giving GPT-3 maximal license to draw less-likely next tokens? (Maybe temp 1 means literally draw from the imputed distribution? I’m not sure.)
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Neil Postman recommended “Wind in the Willows,” which my mother read to me and I read at my mother’s knee, many many times, more times than I can count. I come back to it every year or so, and it’s still a great book. I also was nuts about “Blondie”; the single joke in the joke book never loses its appeal for me. I loved “Black Beauty” and several other Victorian kids’ classics with similar emotional power; I haven’t read them again yet because I never have any time. I can’t forget how much I loved it the first time I read it.
Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?
“Lovecraft Country,” without a doubt. Also my essay in the Yale series, “Mao II and Then Some.” I also think my Song of Ice and Fire “house style” recaps (here, here, here and piecemeal here); they’re the most comfortable thing I’ve written. Even my husband likes them, and he doesn’t care about the show or the books. And the recent article on swaddling.
Edited to make explicit that in-kind donations by the author also serve as p.r. I should have included them, which I wish I had done.
Well, this is the most fun at any rate. I love the idea that Neil Postman was recommending books to childhood me, and to my mom, I guess. This one actually feels to me the most like my own prose style, even as the things it says don’t quite make sense? Maybe there’s a tradeoff between style and sense. At any rate, there is no actual essay called “Mao II and Then Some,” but that’s 100% a title I would use, and DeLillo really is a writer I admire and didn’t mention in the piece. “Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?” is not one of NYTBR’s standard questions for this feature, but doesn’t it sound like one? Oh, here’s the color chart so you can see how much redder and more daring this output is.
Impressive work — and let me emphasize that I just did those three runs and that’s what I showed you, no cherry-picking of the best output. Not something that makes me feel easily impersonable, of course. But I didn’t give it that much of my writing….!
What’s going on with some of the topics previously covered?
Slimming: The initial weight loss reported slowed down, but hasn’t stopped, even though I started eating take-out from restaurants in July and have been doing so pretty regularly. Now at about 18 pounds below pre-pandemic weight. Why, I wonder? Is it really just the lunch out at work and the snack at the coffeeshop forgone?
Pandemic elections: 100,000 people in Dane County have already returned their absentee ballots for November. The city is setting up “Democracy in the Park” events where voters can turn in their ballots to city pollworkers; Republicans are trying to have those events declared illegal, because (this is me editorializing) they make it easy and convenient for people to vote whose votes they’d rather not see cast. There is a lot of noise about slowness of the mail, but it’s been fast here, and I mailed my ballot in; received by the clerk in just two days. The underlying worry here is that political actors will try to retroactively have legally cast ballots invalidated after Election Day, leaving voters with no recourse. The fact that mailed-in absentees are expected to be predominantly Democratic (only 44,000 ballots returned so far in Crucial Waukesha County) creates an obvious means of attack. I don’t really think that’ll happen but people are thinking about it under their mental breath.
Writing: The book is almost done! A draft is written, I’m going through and revising and putting in more endnotes now. To me it seems completely different from How Not To Be Wrong, while Dr. Mrs. Q says it seems exactly the same, which seems a kind of sweet spot: I can hope the people who liked the other book will like this one, while feeling for myself that I’m not putting out the same product again and again like a hack.
Impossible Meat: We’re still eating a lot of it! I have absolutely learned to read it as meat and no longer think of it as a substitute. But we’ve converged on using it exclusively in sauces; as a burger, it still doesn’t totally satisfy.
Smart Restart: After the big surge with the opening of classes, UW-Madison shut down in-person instruction for two weeks and put the two first-year dorms where cases were concentrated into isolation. The positivity rate on campus has dropped back down to around 1% and the campus outbreak doesn’t seem to have created sustained exponential growth in Madison’s general population; but it does seem to have brought our daily case load back up to where it was months ago, from which it is, again, only very slowly dropping. When R_0 is a little less than 1, even a brief bump up in prevalence can be very expensive in terms of long-term cumulative case numbers. Now we are starting football again. Is that smart? There won’t be any fans in Camp Randall (which means the economic catastrophe for local businesses of a year without a football season is going to happen unblunted.) Then again, there’s something hypocritical about me saying “Hell no, why take the risk” since I’ve been watching and enjoying baseball. The enjoyment of millions of fans actually does have value. MLB, because lots and lots of money is riding on this, has mostly kept its players and employees from suffering outbreaks. The Big Ten can probably do the same — if it cares to. What I worry about is this. By all accounts, in-person teaching hasn’t been spreading COVID either. But when we had in-person teaching, everyone felt things were more normal, and thinking things were more normal, they relaxed their social distancing, and that generated thousands of cases. There was indirect spread. Will football generate the same?
Taylor Swift surprised everyone by releasing a surprise new album, which she wrote and recorded entirely during the quarantine. My favorite song on it is the poignant “Invisible String”
which has an agreeable Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe, see e.g.
(The one thing about “Invisible String” is that people seem to universally read it as a song about how great it is to finally have found true love, but people, if you say
And isn’t it just so pretty to think All along there was some Invisible string Tying you to me?
you are (following Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rises) saying it would be lovely to think there was some kind of karmic force-bond tying you and your loved one together, but that, despite what’s pretty, there isn’t, and you fly apart.)
Anyway, I too, like my fellow writer Taylor Swift, have been working surprisingly fast during this period of enforced at-homeness. Even with the kids here all the time, not going anywhere is somehow good writing practice. And this book I’m writing, the one that’s coming out next spring, is now almost done. I’m somewhat tetchy about saying too much before the book really exist, but it’s called Shape, there is a lot of different stuff in it, and I hope you’ll like it.
I was supposed to turn in a manuscript for my new (general-audience book) last week. It’s not finished. But I’ve written a lot of it during the pandemic. Of course it is very hard to be “productive” in the usual way, with the kids here all day. But being in the house all day is somehow the right setup for book-writing, maybe because it so clearly separates life now from my usual life where I am neither staying in the house nor writing a book.
I think the pages I’m putting out are good. As usual, the process of writing is causing me to learn new things faster than I can put them in the book and indeed there is now too much material to actually go in the book, but that means, at any rate, I can be selective and pick just the best.
We saw the last show of the touring company’s visit to Madison. The kids have played the record hundreds of times so I know the songs very well. But there’s a lot you get from seeing the songs realized by actors in physical space.
I had imagined King George as a character in the plot interacting with the rest of the cast; but in the show, he’s a kind of god/chorus floating above the action, seeing certain things clearly that the people in the thick of it can’t. So his famous line, “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love,” comes off in person as less menacing, more cosmic. Neil Haskell played the role very, very, very mincy, which I think was a mistake, but it got laughs.
On the other hand, I hadn’t grasped from the songs how big a role George Washington plays. It’s set up very nicely, with the relation between Hamilton and the two Schuyler sisters presented as a shadow of the much more robust and fully felt love triangle between Hamilton, Burr, and Washington.
The biggest thing I hadn’t understood from the record was the show’s gentle insistence, built up slowly and unavoidably over the whole of the night, that the winner of a duel is the one who gets shot.
is itself a morally problematic, even questionable, act.
Are there no editors anymore? What work is “even questionable” doing? Is it possible to imagine an act that was morally problematic but not morally questionable? And even if it is, is that thin distinction really what the writer of this piece about an HBO miniseries is going for? Or did they just think “is itself a morally problematic act” didn’t have enough heft, stuff another couple of non-nutritive words in there, admire the sentence’s new bulk, move on?
“We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent . . . ”
— William James
“The Ph.D. Octopus,” 1903
By nine o’clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They’re young and old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white). They’re here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to be hired at Indiana University.
Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That’s because, unlike almost everyone else here, she doesn’t need a job; she’s an assistant professor at George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the similar questions they’ll be asked in days to come.
This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA; and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For the people who are here “on the market,” that is, trying to become professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.