How Led Zeppelin + Franz Schubert = Writing

Can you use the music of Led Zeppelin or Franz Schubert as models for writing? Of course you can!

So I argued this past Saturday in a talk about structuring long nonfiction pieces at ScienceWriters 2011, the meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, held this year in Flagstaff. I hope to post a web version of the talk soon, with my main points and the musical excerpts I used. But for now, as I try to finish a rather complicated, long, and overdue nonfiction piece, I’ll pass on a bit of Chris Palmer’s nice write-up of the session at the NASW site:

Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” greeted receptive attendees of David Dobbs’ Saturday afternoon workshop “Going Long: How to Structure the Longform Narrative – with Help From Music, Theater, and Film.” Dobbs played portions of the track, an example of the rock pioneers’ exploration of song structure, to kick off a fascinating talk and discussion about the use of form and structure in longform narrative stories.

David Dobbs

David Dobbs

Continue reading →

Listen: Hemingway’s Short, Moving Nobel Prize Speech

Yesterday, a few hours after the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to Tomas Transtromer, I received from former Nobel staffer Simon Frantz an audio clip that seized my heart. It is a 1954 recording of Ernest Hemingway reading his acceptance speech for the prize that year. (Hemingway did not attend the banquet, but had the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden read his short speech; soon after he recorded this audio in Cuba.)

I have read the speech a few times before. Yet when I listened to it today for the first time, at a time when I am re-reading his stories now and have him much on my mind, the words struck me with a new power. He was in a terrible place just then. He had written several great books and, more recently, some not so great and one, The Old Man and the Sea, a sort of small triumph that yet fell short of his best. In the seven years that remained before he would take his life because he could no longer write, he managed to assemble his powers for only one more great book — A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris and youth. He still reaches, but he cannot grasp. It will get worse, but he reaches still.

Continue reading →

“It’s Just a F**king Little 16th Note. But You Have to Play It.”

The fine writer Steve Silberman has posted a collective homage to good teachers at his blog NeuroTribes. The loveliest is his tribute to his husband Keith, who holds a PhD from Berkeley and teaches science in a high school. Lucky be his students.

Steve asked several writers to answer the question, What’s the most important lesson you ever learned from a teacher? Below is my answer. Over at NeuroTribes you’ll find more from writers including Deborah Blum, Rebecca Skloot, Ferris Jabr, Amy Harmon, Geoff Manaugh, and Maggie Koerth-Baker. It’s a lovely collection.

Hope you enjoy this — and then head over to NeuroTribes for the rest.


What’s the Best Lesson You Ever Learned from a Teacher?

What Malone Said

I started studying the violin in my 30s, working with a warm, intense teacher named Malone. After 5 years he put Bach’s D minor partita in front of me. “We’ll start with the Allemande,” he said. He put the music on the stand and talked me through the first movement, pencilling in bowings and fingerings, occasionally demonstrating how to get through some rhythmic puzzle, and sent me home. I practiced hard all week and came in ready to play about half the first page.

He stopped me on the second note. “Please put down the violin,” he said. I did.

“You’re skipping through that first D. I know it’s just a fucking little sixteenth note, but you have to play the whole thing. I don’t even mean the time. You’re actually giving it enough time. But you’re playing over it instead of through it. You have to play right through the center of it. It’s a leading note, but it’s not just a step into the room. It is the room, and you have to put us there. Play it. Play through every single note in the piece.”

I started to reach for the violin. He held up a hand.

“Wait,” he said. “This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.

“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the fucking music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.”

He took a deep breath, let it out slow, and gave me the tiniest hint of a smile. “Okay,” he said, and nodded at my violin. “Play.”


Get more over at NeuroTribes.

See Also:

  • How Led Zeppelin + Franz Schubert = Writing
  • How to Write Like Nicolas Cage
  • Why I Love Hemingway (and Why I Write)
  • How I Wrote “The Orchid Children,” via Open Notebook
  • Musical Audition 2.0: Live, from Carnegie Hall, the YouTube …

Don’t Think About It! ‘Tight Collar’ Makes Best American Sports Writing

Today’s a good day:  The Tight Collar, my story about choking under pressure, is officially published in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Sports Writing 2011. I’m thrilled that it was selected by guest editor Jane Leavy, who wrote the incomparable bio Sandy Koufax. And I’m deeply honored that my story will run alongside The Patch, a devastatingly beautiful piece about fishing and grief by John McPhee, who has been a major inspiration and teacher-via-reading to me all my writing life. The volume also includes pieces by Sally Jenkins, Chris Jones, Selena Roberts, and P.J. O’Rourke.

Many thanks to Glenn Stout, series editor; Jane Leavy; the incomparable John McPhee; Dean Johnson, former editor at the NY Times magazine Play, who commissioned my story but could not run it because the Times folded the magazine  6 weeks before the story was to run; and to readers who helped make The Tight Collar a hit and spread the word when it was subsequently published here at Neuron Culture. For that’s another thrill: Along with Ed Yong’s story on sushi digestion and Deborah Blum’s beautiful post on her father, both of which are included in the Best American Science Writing 2011 curated by Rebecca Skloot and Floyd Skloot, The Tight Collar appears to be one of the first stories to originally appear self-published on blogs and then make one of these long-established “Best of” anthologies. Extra hat-tips and high-fives to Leavy, the Skloots, and the series editors for recognizing blog posts as writing.

I just ordered my copy. How can you go wrong? It’s a nice fat 384 pages, and “each of these selections transcends its athletic subject,” says Library Journal, which promises “a hit with both sports fans and those who are simply fans of good nonfiction.” Might just get us through the winter. You can can buy The Best American Sports Writing 2011 right here.  (If you use that link, you’ll send a wee welcome bit’o’cash my way as commission. Many thanks.)

Tom Clynes on His Pop Sci Profile of Wolfe-Simon

Tom Clynes

Last week I wrote Arsenic is Life and the View from Nowhere, about a long, complicated story that journalist and photographer Tom Clynes wrote in Popular Science about Felisa Wolfe-Simon and the #arseniclife controversy. As my post noted, the story generated a complex reaction in me — and a distressingly oversimplified reaction in many of its readers commenting at Pop Sci. This led me to end up disappointed in a story in which I also found (and still find) much to admire.

While my take on the story remains roughly the same, I am increasingly impressed by the story’s author, Tom Clynes, who in an earlier email to me and a longer one received today and reprinted below, has shown an admirable open-mindedness and thoughtfulness even as has received some fairly sharp critiques from me and others. (A couple days ago he also wrote a different response to Carl Zimmer about Zimmer’s post at the loom.) Extra points for such flexibility and graciousness.

Here’s Tom’s note to me from this afternoon:

Continue reading →

Fraudulent Docs, Tennis Secrets, and Beautiful Teens: The Best of September

September’s Top Five

How the Fraudulent Dr Fox Fooled The Shrinks Above. Actor gives nonsensical short talk at a psychiatrist’s conference. Audience eats it up.

Android App Lets You See Invisible Space Definitely the month’s top tech buzz, and a gorgeous film.

Djokovic & Nadal Even Better Than You Think: A Story About Spin My personal favorite.

What eBooks Can Offer — and Take Away Opportunity and danger, from an all-star panel I moderated in New York last month.

A Troubling Adaptation: The Beautiful Teenage Brain Teaser to  my National Geographic feature on how adolescence, incredibly enough, is a crucially adaptive phase (if you live through it)

Most tragically overlooked

Why I Love Hemingway (and Why I Write)

How to Write Like Nicolas Cage

Darwin’s First Theory of Evolution

Just Getting Started

Arsenic is Life and the View From Nowhere

fMRI Shows My Bullshit Detector Going Ape Shit Over iPhone Lust

Not really my insula freaking out

The fMRI scan above shows my brain* reading a truly horrific NY Times Op-Ed piece. The piece, written by a man named Martin Lindstrom, who calls himself a “fan of the consumer” (meaning what? he blows on us?), is called You Love Your iPhone. Literally. Literally. Lindstrom claims to see actual love for iPhones declared by the insulas of the 16 people in a scan study he performed. Several people have already spankingly revealed this claim’s bare-assed absurdity, most notably academic researchers Russ Poldrack and Tal Yarkoni, who declare, respectively, that the piece is complete crap that (returning to fan theme) blows it big time. It came to my attention via a spirited take-down by the ever-watchful Neurocritic — a sort of master class in bullshit detection about fMRI studies that claim to see Specific Emotion X rooted in Area Y of the brain.

Continue reading →

Arsenic is Life and the View From Nowhere

Felisa Wolfe-Simon. Photo Tom Clynes/Popular Science

[Note: Major second thoughts at bottom; post retitled (formerly “Cutting to the Chase on the Arsenic Circus”)]

Popular Science has run what strikes me as a nicely nuanced profile on Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the young scientist who, along with senior collaborators, made strong claims last December that they induced Mono Lake bacteria to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in their physiology and even in their DNA. I wrote and spoke about the handling of these claims, with some pique, several times. The Pop Sci article follows Wolfe-Simon as, among other things, she poses and talks for a TV program about her findings. People like me, who feel that the hype about these findings runs far out in front of the evidence, find this courting of the press troubling. Yet Tom Clynes, the writer, manages to generate some sympathy for how awkwardly Wolfe-Simon is now caught in the fallout from an over-the-top media press of which she is both part author and something of a victim. I need to give the story another read. But at this point I suspect the challenge I feel to my own stance on Wolfe-Simon speaks to the story’s quality.

Continue reading →

Why I Love Hemingway (and Why I Write)

Hemingway’s reputation has suffered immensely over the last two or three decades. Read around enough and you’ll see this. And I can feel it when I occasionally confess to people — for you don’t tell this, you confess it — that I love him and his writing. I always sense a bit of a surprise, as if that’s a rather strong feeling for a man who could be so odious and a writer who at times nudged close or fell in to self-parody. I’ve long thought of trying to explain what makes him so great and how he so utterly captivated me when I discovered him in my early 20s. Now I don’t need to explain it. For James Salter, in an essay in the New York Review of Books that is itself achingly beautiful and sad, does the job splendidly:

Continue reading →

How the Fraudulent Dr Fox Fooled The Shrinks

You’re looking at footage at a somewhat infamous scam lecture an actor gave to a group of psychiatrists, about game theory. The actor was trained the day before — trained so that he wouldn’t say much that made sense. But he had such a convincing presence that toward the end, even after the fraud was exposed, some audience members asked where they could read more about the research. (Possibly that’s actually a good thing; I’m still trying to decide. It’s all rather confusing.) Reto Schneider wrote this up a while back, but thought the footage was lost. It’s great that he found it and posted it at his Weird Experiments — for the real heart of the scam, evident only on viewing, is the power of presence, eloquence, and humor to convince.

Continue reading →