Posts Tagged ‘Megan McArdle’

On writing: chocolate smoothies and ships in a bottle

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

A weekend that was supposed to be dedicated to writing, but largely spent this way: bathed the elderly dog; washed, boiled and sterilized dog beds; cleared mountain of books, papers, office equipment from my desk a.k.a. bed (California King); then washed, boiled and sterilized my bed; persuaded daughter to change light bulb in ceiling I couldn’t reach myself; did several loads of laundry; pruned roses (a little); pruned olive trees (well… persuaded a friend to prune olive trees, I did the cheerleading); washed a giant rug in the bathtub; dinner with the friend who did the pruning. Then, writing.

smoothieAll the tasks were necessary … in fact, long overdue. But I do wonder why it takes so long to get to writing. Fortunately, Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic explains it all. She describes the drearily familiar habit of a writer’s procrastination:  “In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.”

My personal favorite is “googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.” I actually do that often. It kind of helps.

Why are we so easily distracted?  According to McCardle, “As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.”

Hmmmm… read the rest here.  But be warned, the piece on “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators” takes a weird twist in the middle, and turns into another article entirely. Bad case of cut-and-paste to meet a deadline crunch?

On a more positive note: Carl Zimmer is a science columnist for the New York Times and the author your Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea.  Over here, he has some useful tips on writing.  Here’s what he said when he was asked: What’s the one thing you’ve learned over time that you wish you knew when you started out?

The writer’s progress… (Photo: Werner Willmann)

“I wish someone told me I shouldn’t be making ships in a bottle.

“To write about anything well, you have to do a lot of research. Even just trying to work out the chronology of a few years of one person’s life can take hours of interviews. If you’re writing about a scientific debate, you may have to trace it back 100 years through papers and books. To understand how someone sequenced 400,000 year old DNA, you may need to become excruciatingly well acquainted with the latest DNA sequencing technology.

“Once you’ve done all that, you will feel a sense of victory. You get it. You see how all the pieces fit together. And you can’t wait to make your readers also see that entire network of knowledge as clearly as you do right now.

“That’s a recipe for disaster. When I was starting out, I’d try to convey everything I knew about a subject in a story, and I ended up spending days or weeks in painful contortions. There isn’t enough room in an article to present a full story. Even a book is not space enough. It’s like trying to build a ship in a bottle. You end up spending all your time squeezing down all the things you’ve learned into miniaturized story bits. And the result will be unreadable.

“It took me a long time to learn that all that research is indeed necessary, but only to enable you to figure out the story you want to tell. That story will be a shadow of reality—a low-dimensional representation of it. But it will make sense in the format of a story. It’s hard to take this step, largely because you look at the heap of information you’ve gathered and absorbed, and you can’t bear to abandon any of it. But that’s not being a good writer. That’s being selfish. I wish someone had told me to just let go.”

Kind of scary. I better go make a chocolate smoothie…

Martin Luther King quote goes viral: Fake? Not really…

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

His quote ... kind of

This quote went viral on the internet, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden:

‎”I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Penn Jillette:  Not him

Penn Jillette: Not him

The citation was attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but a number of people came forward to debunk it.  A Salon article attributed the quote to famous magician Penn Jillette. Megan McArdle of The Atlantic wrote, “Out of Osama’s Death, a Fake Quotation is Born.” But when I (silly me) posted the quotation on my Facebook page and heard about kerfuffle, I found someone who indeed attributed the quote to MLK’s 1963  Strength to Love.

Who better to ask than Clay Carson and the folks at Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, home of the King Papers Project?  The crackerjack editorial team responded within minutes.

Here’s the real quote, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love:

The mysterious Ms. Dovey

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

“Mangled to a meme in less than two days,” concludes McArdle in a follow up piece.  Ground Zero for the brouhaha is Jessica Dovey, a 24-year old Penn State graduate who now teaches English to kids in Kobe, Japan.  Her Facebook page had the King citation, introduced with her own musings.  The quotation marks got lost in a tweet.

But thanks, Jessica, we like the thought.

Big on quotes himself

Postscript:  Just got an email of clarification from Tenisha Armstrong of the King Institute:

Just to follow up: I have not been able to substantiate the first part of the quote, but that doesn’t mean King did not say it. I did find a King quote that expresses a similar sentiment:

“This story symbolizes something basic about the universe. It’s meaning is not found in the drowning of a few men, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.” King, draft of Chapter VIII in Strength to Love, “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” in Papers 6:507.

The published version of the quote was a little different: “The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being.” King, “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” in Strength to Love.


Postscript on 3/5:  The previously unknown Jessica Dovey, with a photo taken from her Facebook page,  gets a Q&A in The Atlantic here.  Of all things.

Postscript on 3/5:  Stan Szczesny commented on John Donne‘s famous “No Man Is an Island” passage from his sermons in the comments section below.  Tenisha Armstrong of the MLK Institute’s editorial team replied with the following:

Quotable John

Thanks, Stan. Your rememberance of this apt quote by John Donne reminds me of how frequently King quoted from Donne’s work. The Donne quote you posted is from “Meditations XVII” (1624). In King’s 1960 sermon, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” a version of which King had preached as early as 1954, he discusses how everybody is “tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, where what affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Of Donne, King says:

“Strangely enough I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made; I didn’t make it that way, but it’s like that. And John Donne recorded it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ And then he goes on toward the end to say: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Only by discovering this are we able to master the breadth of life.”

Quote from Volume 5 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Threshold of a New Decade,” January 1959-December 1960, p. 577.