This year, I decided to keep track of the books I read, something as a bibliophile I had never formally done before. The reading year started with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, a book I liked, though found some fundamental issues with his pessimism about our species. The year’s end found me finishing Ursula K. LeGuin’s City of Illusions, some entrancing early science fiction from a master of the form. I’ve concluded the list with her book, though I’ve started reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season the last week of the year—I won’t finish it to make 42 reads. In between, I reacquainted myself with favorites like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, as fresh of a read as when I first read it in 1993. I also celebrated the life of Larry McMurtry, who died this year, by rereading The Last Picture Show. We also lost Anne Rice and Joan Didion, and they’ll probably appear on next year’s list.
Not making the official list this year were books I started but didn’t finish for various reasons: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Watership Down by Richard Adams, and The Histories by Herodotus.
Book list 2021
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
- The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
- Factfulness by Hans Rosling
- The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
- The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
- Native Tongue by Carl Hiassen
- The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
- The Spy by Paulo Coelho
- The Great Leader by Jim Harrison
- The Odyssey by Homer
- Sailing the Winedark Sea by Thomas Cahill
- Road Fever by Tim Cahill
- Candide by Voltaire
- Theogeny and Works and Days by Hesiod
- Cold in July by Joe Lansdale
- Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
- The High Window by Raymond Chandler
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
- Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley
- The Oresteia by Aeschylus
- IQ by Joe Ide
- The Likeness by Tana French
- The Clouds by Aristophanes
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
- The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem
- Unfuckology by Amy Alkon
- Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- How to Think by Alan Jacobs
- There Will Never Be Another You by Carolyn See
- Protein Power by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades
- Range by David Epstein
- The Theban Plays by Sophocles
- Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. LeGuin
- Planet of Exile by Ursula K. LeGuin
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
- City of Illusions by Ursula K. LeGuin
To Think or Not to Think
If I had read Alan Jacobs’ biography before reading a review of one of his books, I might not have read that book. I’m a secular humanist. He’s a Christian, a professor at a Baptist university–Baylor–a university in my mind that’s a right-wing-Bible-thumper factory. Technically, he falls under the category Repugnant Cultural Other, or RCO, an acronym borrowed from anthropology that he uses in his book How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed. It’s possible that simply because of a superficial biography–gleaned from scanning his website before the book arrived at my doorstep–if I were to meet or even debate him, I might automatically resort to Refutation Mode; I’d be ready to argue, ready to fight without listening to what he might have to say about his faith–I couldn’t imagine anything he said about thinking to be of value. That’s the nature of Refutation Mode.
“[I]n Refutation Mode there is no listening,” he writes. “Moreover, when there is no listening, there is no thinking. To enter Refutation Mode is to say, in effect, that you’ve already done all the thinking you need to do, that no further information or reflection is required.”
It sounds shallow to decide a book’s merit based solely on a writer’s faith, or lack thereof. (To be fair, Jacobs is Anglican, not Baptist, and doesn’t seem like a Bible-thumper at all.) Except, it’s something we thinking persons do frequently, whether debating religion, politics, or plagues–especially online. But when we encounter RCOs, it’s almost reflexive to go into Refutation Mode. Jacobs himself sometimes succumbs to Refutation Mode. “But . . . I realized that I too am regularly tempted to enter Refutation Mode–and the more passionate I feel about a topic, the more likely I am to succumb to the temptation.”
So, why didn’t I automatically jump into Refutation Mode when it came to reading Jacobs’s book? As I say, I was, in part, inspired to read it when I read a brief review from Dr. Michael Eades, whose seminal book on low-carb dieting, Protein Power, I’ve also been reading. And, in truth, that review was hardly a review; it’s almost a non-review. But this sentence “Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think, takes a different look at critical thinking than any I’ve seen before” intrigued me. I have a fondness for critical thinking and like learning to think better; I wanted to know what made this book so different, so interesting.
Moreover, Jacobs is clearly a bibliophile, as I discovered from my superficial scanning of his website. His most recent book, for example, Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, seems to have a compelling premise: reading books from the past, even when they might offend, can somehow bring peace of mind. Makes sense. For me, reading is one of the few sources of pleasure that quell anxieties.
So, despite his faith, we have common ground. The love of reading. The love of books.
But, he also seems to share a concern about our current divisiveness. In a review of the book, Kelly Jane Torrance notes that on his blog Jacobs writes “the chief impetus of this book was the ever-increasing hostility and (often malicious) misunderstanding of one another that became one of the chief themes of the 2016 presidential election here in the U.S. and of the debate over the Brexit referendum in the U.K.”
Refutation Mode seems like a default, especially online, an arena where discourse seems perpetually either/or–you’re either with us or against us–even when that discourse comes from proponents of critical thinking, reason, and evidence-based thinking. Even thinkers don’t really think. Which is, according to Jacobs the “fundamental problem,” not necessarily the need to overcome bias, a need many prominent thinkers like Daniel Kahneman suggest is the key to better thinking.
“[W]e suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking,” Jacobs writes. “Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?”
Thinking, really thinking takes time; it’s slow, as Jacobs notes, and we take greater pleasure in taking socially approved attitudes, often the socially approved attitudes of our peer groups. No matter how much we might think we’re independent thinkers, our thinking tends to bind to one strand of thought or another. We think with others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Jacobs, though it can at times lead to dark unthinking places–to unthinkingly following, for example, a charismatic leader into the depths of hell.
We bind ourselves to certain strands of thought or social attitudes because thinking, really thinking, is also risky. “To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk,” Jacobs writes. “There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction.”
That’s a heavy risk to take. You might change your mind. You could lose friends or family–though how many friends have you blocked or unfriended on social media or even in real life because they didn’t hold the same social attitudes as you? Not thinking is risky too. Perhaps riskier. You could also discover something of great value or change your mind yet again, because thinking, really thinking, as Jacobs concludes, has no endgame.
“To cease thinking, as Thomas Aquinas explained,” Jacobs writes, “is an act either of despair–‘I can’t go any further’–or of presumption–‘I need not go any further.’ What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are.”
Amy Alkon Shows Us How to Boldly Go Where We Want With Our Lives
When I watch old Star Trek episodes–either the original series or The Next Generation–I almost always feel inspired when I hear Kirk or Picard tell us it’s time “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. The confidence in those lines makes you want to launch out into space and square off with Klingons or the Borg or whatever the vast universe has to offer. It’s the kind of confidence you always want to have, but the kind of confidence that sometimes escapes us in our day-to-day lives. It’s the kind of confidence we need and crave, and it’s the kind of confidence Amy Alkon, in her book Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living With Guts and Confidence, shows us how to achieve and maintain.
A ‘Science-Help’ Book
Unfathomable reams of paper have been sacrificed in self-help books to show us how to live confidently and get all we want out of life. Some of these books offer little more than a course in magical thinking, usually shored-up, as Alkon notes, with some version of “the tempting premise that positive thinking works like a giant magnet to pull whatever you want right to you. Supposedly, if you want a new car, you just picture it and think grateful thoughts about it (as if it were already yours) and some pocket in the universe will unzip and out will drop your fabulous new dream ride, right into your life.”
Other self-help books offer some sound advice. Taking action, for instance, as Bryan Robinson in The Art of Confident Living notes, is better than reacting to the world. Alkon herself might agree. She’s quite the cheerleader for taking action. “Ultimately, if Unf*ckology does have a ‘secret,’ it’s that if you get off your ass and do what the science suggests, you can have a far better life.”
But these self-help books also tend to focus just on trying to maintain a positive outlook, as if positive emotions are the only way to go. Only maintaining positive emotions and straying from or avoiding negative emotions is often ineffective, and can become overwhelming.
“This is especially true if you’re a person who feels bad a lot of the time,” Alkon writes. “The natural impulse is to avoid your feelings. This works–about as well as sticking all of your unpaid bills in a drawer.”
How does Alkon know this? Outside of her personal experience, she’s researched the science of how emotions and the brain actually work and why such methods work. This is what “science-help” is: “advice that’s based on evidence from scientific research.”
This is the approach Alkon takes throughout the book. She draws from multiple fields–anthropology and social science, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, and biology and chemistry to name a few disciplines–and explains why and how the science works before showing us how to benefit from it and live our best life, shedding our loserhood like the skin of a molting lizard.
The approach is unique, atypical of the self-help genre, which is appealing, especially if you’re persuaded by a scientific and realistic approach to life, as I am. In my own quest to build self-confidence, I’ve read plenty of self-help books, including those that pester the universe for healing. At low points those books and the magical thinking can be appealing, but, ultimately that stuff doesn’t work and only proves frustrating and discouraging, especially when the car you want doesn’t appear in the parking lot or the life and success you want doesn’t appear sparkling at your feet.
Does Alkon’s approach work? Alkon provides anecdotal evidence from her own life that suggests it does. Research from social psychology, for instance, suggests that creating rituals “can help you dial down your anxiety, feel better about yourself, and have more self-control.” Rituals are symbolic and help break ingrained behavior, and Alkon writes she created a ritual for herself–a funeral for her old less-than-confident-self–that was a symbolic action to alert the brain changes were coming.
While giving myself a funeral seems a little creepy and discomfiting, I can attest that I’ve learned through other self-help books and through therapy techniques that have worked such as naming emotions to help quell anxiety. I can also say mindfulness meditation, which Alkon endorses, seems to work, especially when it comes to calming anxiety.
Will Alkon’s advice work for you? It’s possible. Taking action seems to be a key element. Action alerts and activates the brain to begin changing. You just have to do it by “Starting NOW,” as Alkon urges.
When I was about seven or eight years old, I became obsessed with airplanes, specifically World War I biplanes. I’m not sure how this obsession came about. Seeing Snoopy fight the Red Baron in the Sunday comics? Seeing King Kong on TV? Whatever caused the obsession, the obsession sent me on a quest for knowledge. I wanted to know everything about these planes. As a byproduct of that quest, I learned about the war. Suddenly, I knew who Archduke Franz Ferdinand was. I knew who the Central Powers and the Allied Powers were. I knew what trench warfare was. I was learning history.
I read—or attempted to read—library books about the planes and the war, some of which were well beyond my reading level. But, the books usually had maps, illustrations, and photos, and I could learn from them. Also, I distinctly recall finding some special edition of an aviation magazine featuring planes of World War I. I think it was in that magazine that I learned the Red Baron—Manfred von Richthofen—flew a Fokker DR1 triplane and shot down 80 Allied pilots before allegedly dying at the hands of Canadian Sopwith Camel pilot Roy Brown.
These books and magazines not only fed my curiosity to know more about airplanes but also fed my growing curiosity about the greater world around me. That’s something the study of history does. It widens your horizons, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens.
“So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions,” he writes. “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have more possibilities before us than we imagine”.
Of course, at seven or eight, I was unaware that my situation was “neither natural nor inevitable” and I doubt I was entertaining what possibilities were before me. I was gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I just wanted to know more about the planes or the war they were flown in. I wasn’t following a narrative thread. I didn’t have any questions about the causes of the war or its consequences—as far-reaching as they continue to be. That interest would come later.
Reading Harari’s book, however, reminded me why I ended up studying history at university and why I still love history. Harari is right. Possibilities open up. When I studied history at university, possibilities opened up. One possibility was the thought of a career: I intended to get my bachelor’s degree in history and teach high school history. While that didn’t happen, studying history changed my life in other ways. A course on the Renaissance, for instance, gave me a greater understanding of my growing humanist outlook. I was discovering the foundations of a belief system, one that I continue to explore and develop. Later, I was drawn to the Enlightenment thinkers and their influence on the development of the United States: studying that era opened up the possibilities to me of what the U.S. could be and perhaps still strives to be.
Harari’s Sapiens is a history of our species—Homo sapiens—as a whole. While the genus Homo evolved about 2.5 million years ago and Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, Harari believes it was only about 70,000 years ago that our species really began to “stand out from the myriad other organisms with which [we] shared [our] habitats”. It was then that distinct human cultures began to form in an age Harari labels the Cognitive Revolution (not to be confused with the psychological movement of the same name that began in the 1950s). It’s this era when history began.
The Cognitive Revolution is one of three revolutions—the Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions are the other two—that changed everything and “shaped the course of history,” Harari tells us.
As you might expect, packing 70,000 years of human history into more than 400 pages, you get a pretty broad sweep. But Harari successfully navigates readers through time from the moment we developed cultures to the moment “about 10,000 years ago when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species” to the moment when it became possible for us to create medicines that save countless lives or to end everything in a mass of atomic fireballs. He draws from multiple disciplines—evolutionary biology, theology, and anthropology to name a few—as he plots his course to the future, concluding by examining what might lay ahead for Sapiens with artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and cybernetics.
From what I can gather, Harari believes the course of history isn’t necessarily a good thing, at least up to the present. Threaded through the eye of his story is a dark narrative, a pessimistic “I’ve-met-the-enemy-and-it-us” needle. That whatever happened in our brains 70,000 years ago to cause us to create cultures and our myriad imagined orders and the notion of history itself has broken the world. Homo sapiens has made everything worse, including Homo sapiens.
We excel it seems, for instance, at genocide. Well before the atrocities of Cambodia’s killing fields, or Stalin’s purge, or Hitler’s final solution, Sapiens in one way or another eliminated the other human species—the Neanderthals, the Denisovans—we once shared the planet with. One theory has it that we starved them out. Our proficiency at hunting and gathering took away the resources the Neanderthals needed to feed themselves. As a result, Harari writes, “[t]heir population dwindled and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who joined their Sapiens neighbours”.
Another theory suggests, as Harari notes, “that competition for resources flared up violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect, or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group”.
This isn’t to say that Harari doesn’t acknowledge our species’ achievements or even our ability to cooperate at times, enough to come up with imagined constructs such as religion, law codes, science, or empires. It’s just that those constructs aren’t necessarily as great as we’d like to believe. That’s not wholly untrue: Empires, science, law codes, and religion have been equally destructive. Harari, though, just doesn’t seem to like his species.
“Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of,” he writes. “We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires, and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals”.
For all of the book’s many charms and insights, Harari’s species loathing left me numb and nihilistic after I finished reading the book. Early reviewers, too, were critical of Harari’s deprecating tone. Charles C. Mann, for instance, notes briefly something I picked up on: Harari’s scant reference to art or music or literature, those accomplishments that we can be proud of, that have brought to our species contentment, joy, entertainment, the realization of possibilities.
“Personally,” Mann writes, “I’d say that Beethoven’s symphonies, the Kokedera moss garden in Kyoto, the Great Mosque of Djenne, classical Greek drama and the theory of quantum electrodynamics ain’t beanbag”.
Few references to art, music, or literature are worthy enough to make mention in the book’s index, although in a quick scan, Byron, Shaw, Dickens, Cicero, and Harry Potter get nods. Few works of art or music appear in the book. Harari does champion the great religions—Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, in particular—but perhaps music, art, and literature are just extensions of religions. Or perhaps the arts, in general, don’t really matter that much to Harari because like all aspects of human culture, they are fictions, imagined social constructs we’ve created in order to survive and dominate the earth? His outlook is often postmodernist, favoring cultural relativism, I suppose, because it’s all fiction anyhow.
If a loathing of the species is what the study of history has pressed upon Harari, is history really worth studying? I thought the study of history opened up the possibilities before us? Harari concludes we’ve become self-made gods whose seemingly only possibility is psychopathic self-annihilation. He leaves readers with this question: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want”?
While I don’t want to read rose-tinted versions of history, I do tend to agree that studying history is worthwhile, as Harari asserts early in his book. Studying history does open up possibilities. It also helps us understand human nature better, perhaps to improve it. Studying history presents us with checks and balances to the worst of our nature, and possibilities to stifle the childlike gods that dwell in our psyche. I’ll take Hans Rosling’s view of the necessity of studying history over Harari’s.
“When we hang on to a rose-tinted version of history we deprive ourselves and our children of the truth,” Rosling writes in his book Factfulness. “The evidence about the terrible past is scary, but it is a great resource. It can help us to appreciate what we have today and provide us with hope that future generations will, as previous generations did, get over the dips and continue the long-term trends toward peace, prosperity, and solutions to our global problems”.
This past week was trying for me and millions of Texans as we endured two winter storms without power or with sporadic power, as a deregulated power grid failed. I was angered by our governor, by ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) who ordered rolling blackouts, and certainly by a certain senator who decided to flee to Cancun in the midst of it—and then lied about the trip to save his Herman-Munster face. I was angered by the “rugged individualist” culture that persists in the state—a former governor and slimeball said Texans were willing to suffer to remain free from Big Government. People in power pointed fingers. People without power looked for a warm place to take shelter. People without power also lost water as pipes burst and city water systems broke down.
At the same time, I was aware that at the very least I was failing to understand the world in a factful, rational, reasonable manner, falling victim to what Hans Rosling calls “The Blame Instinct” in his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. (I think this is my favorite read, so far, in 2021.) “The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened. . . .It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions.” The simple answer for me and thousands of others suffering without power: it’s all the fault of a corrupt government and greedy capitalists, more concerned about profits than a reliable electric grid. Finger-pointing is easy. The other side did it too. The weasley governor blamed it on a Green New Deal policy that has yet to be enacted. A cloddish mayor said we’re weak freeloaders waiting for the next handout and, in fact, deserve to suffer because we’re weak freeloaders.
Finger-pointing, however, as Rosling notes “steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere. This undermines our ability to solve the problem, or prevent it from happening again, because we are stuck with oversimplistic fingerpointing, which distracts us from focusing our energy in the right places.”
I try to think critically and think of myself as a mostly reasonable person. Of course, as humans, we can’t live in a logical paradise like the Vulcans of Star Trek. And in the midst of chaos, looking for a simple answer, for someone or some entity to blame is natural. It is an instinct, one easy to succumb to. Fingerpointing also tends to hold to ideological lines and makes us blind to other perspectives. We start following what Rosling terms “The Single Perspective Instinct,” which is another way we fail to see reality. “Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective,” Rosling writes. “This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality.”
You can probably tell by the epithets I’m slinging like “slimeball” and “cloddish” that I lean left and live in a predominantly right-wing state. And it was hard to listen to a governor and executives of ERCOT try to explain the grid failure without wanting to strike back on ideological grounds. It was also quite hard to watch a senator decide to take a trip, rather than showing genuine leadership. There seemed to be so much indifference and lack of genuine concern as people froze to death, searched for places to stay warm, and find food and clean water. Yet, I also realize I’m guilty of succumbing to my particular perspective (I’m not quite as far left as I might seem; I tend to subscribe to a traditional liberal humanist perspective) as we all are.
I also hope that at some point conservatives and liberals sit down and figure out in the days, weeks, months, and years what the real problems are and ask questions like “Why did wind turbines freeze?” or “Why did water treatment systems freeze?” and work to find genuine solutions so the grid doesn’t break down again.
I’m sure from now on I’ll slip in my reasoning and fall prey to the 10 instincts of broken thinking Rosling examines in his book. But the book is certainly a great guide that keeps you aware that you’re drifting away from reasoned reality and off into a scrambled view of the universe. I have to recommend this book to everyone, especially those in fact-based professions like journalism—Rosling takes to task some issues in journalism—and educators. The book’s comparable to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, another worthwhile read that helps us see reality as it is and not as we want it to be. Seeing the world factfully, as Rosling notes, helps us “see that the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”
“I have no money, no resources, no hope, I am the happiest man alive.”
So writes Henry Miller early in “Tropic of Cancer.” It’s an exuberant voice, as Erica Jong notes in her biography of Miller, “The Devil at Large.” It’s an infectious voice. It certainly infected me when I first read “Tropic of Cancer” in my twenties. Almost 30 years on, I can’t remember now whether I read “Tropic of Cancer” before I saw the movie “Henry & June” or if I saw the movie first. Probably, I saw the movie first and then picked up “Tropic of Cancer,” wanting to see how the movie and book compared.
The movie is actually drawn from Anais Nin’s journals. I didn’t know that then. But, I loved the movie. I loved the way it depicted the impecunious Miller (played by Fred Ward) delighted by the joie de vivre of living, writing, and bumming his way through Depression-era Paris. The movie was much more infectious than the book for me in my twenties trying to be a writer.
“Henry & June” was the first movie I’d seen that depicted a writer’s life. It was the life for me. Disdain money. Celebrate art, freedom, what have you. If you’re a writer, you’re an artist. You shouldn’t worry about how to make a living from writing. I wasn’t worried, then, about how to make a living as a writer. I was in graduate school hoping I might one day teach lit at a university and write on the side.
The funny thing is, as I was learning to write, I rarely put too much of a thought to earning a living as a writer. Oh, I fantasized about getting paid a thousand bucks for a short story in Playboy or the New Yorker—I think Playboy might have paid better. Or, I assumed I’d write a bestselling novel, be hailed a literary genius, and never have to worry about money again. I would just write and write and write. Naive fantasies. Rock star fantasies.
As I was learning to write (fiction, primarily, because writing fiction was “real” writing) I spent a lot of time and money on how-to-write books. Some, like John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction,” are invaluable, especially for the exercises. Others, forgettable. Even now, as someone who has written professionally as a journalist, I buy and read and even learn from books about writing. Of course, while books about writing help, you still have to write and read novels, stories, poems, essays—everything—to learn to write.
While many of these books on writing are great—another I’ll recommend here is Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Steering the Craft”—and have great exercises and advice on the craft of writing itself, many consistently seem to stray from one topic: the business of writing. How do you make a living as a writer?
A few answer the question. Stephen King’s “On Writing” addresses writing as a business, in particular, writing fiction. The first writing book I ever read, Rita Mae Brown’s “Starting From Scratch,” has chapters about going into newspaper journalism and writing for magazines as ways to make a living writing while you write fiction on the side and hope for the best. (I went into newspaper journalism largely because of Brown’s advice.) Brown doesn’t go into great detail about how to freelance for magazines; she just suggests it as an avenue to income and recognition.
“Starting From Scratch” came out in 1988 and “On Writing” in 2000, and both books are probably woefully outdated, especially now as newspapers and magazines go extinct. Every millisecond turns into an asteroid now with any sort of publishing, and almost everything seems to go obsolete within seconds of appearing. Perhaps writing itself is obsolete.
Richard Rhodes’ “How to Write”—published in 1995— is probably just as woefully outdated as Brown’s or King’s, regarding the business of writing, but I love this book. I recently reread it—I first read it in 2003—as I’ve been sporadically rereading all the books I have on writing. Rhodes’ early chapters on overcoming fears about writing—I reread these, even just a paragraph or two, when I need to pierce my own self-doubts and fears—are worth the price of admission.Throughout the book, Rhodes writes about the business of writing of personal dealings with publishers and editors and other scoundrels, but he also dedicates a full chapter on writing as a business.
While some of his advice on breaking into publishing might be outdated, his outlook on trying to make a living as a writer is sober and realistic. “[T]enacity, not to say obstinance . . . is a valuable asset if you want to write, because it’s not easy to find your way to publication. It’s even harder to make a living writing, and few writers do.”
Like other businesses, a professional writer has to network. You have to “overcome the proverbial shyness that afflicts fledgling writers,” Rhodes writes, and talk to other writers and as well as editors. You have to make contact with agents and publishers. You have to do the type of things you might do to find jobs of any kind.
I’m not sure how much the world of indie publishing has changed this. Agents might be less necessary. But, you’re still going to have to market your work so you can make a living.
Many writers—myself included—also have to get past a learned disdain for money or commerce, the idea that somehow art and commerce don’t or shouldn’t mix. That somehow, if you make money as a writer, you’re nothing more than a hack. I’ve struggled with this notion for years, and it’s still an idea I have to wrestle with. While the seeds of my issues with money were planted in a religious upbringing that took seriously the idea that money was the root of all evil, I kept finding reinforcement in it throughout my life. Confirmation bias was deeply entrenched in my psyche.
In the next-to-the-last chapter of “How to Write,” Rhodes quotes at length from Anthony Trollope’s “Autobiography”. The 19th-century English novelist was prolific and productive, to say the least. He would finish writing a novel and immediately begin writing the next. Rhodes notes Trollope fell out of favor with his Victorian audience after his autobiography was posthumously published. What scandalized the Victorians weren’t sexual confessions, as Rhodes notes, but Trollope’s honesty about and pride in creating a career as a professional writer.
I am well aware that there are many who think that an author in his authorship should not regard money,—nor a painter or sculptor, or composer in his art. I do not know that this unnatural sacrifice is supposed to extend itself further. A barrister, a clergyman, a doctor, an engineer, and even actors and architects, may without disgrace follow the bent of human nature, and endeavor to fill their bellies and clothe their backs, and also those of their wives and children, as comfortably as they can by the exercise of their abilities and their crafts.
Where did the idea come from that writers—any artists for that matter— not regard money? Did we do it to ourselves when we stopped, somewhere around the end of World War I, being “faithful witness[es] of everyman,” as John Ralston Saul posits in his book “Voltaire’s Bastards,” and became literary navel-gazers? There’s probably some truth to that. The Romantics probably had something to with it, too. Romanticism was fresh enough in Trollope’s time to influence those who might want Trollope to shut up about money and simply create art for art’s sake. And in Henry Miller’s exuberant exultation about having neither money nor resources and yet being the “happiest man alive” there is a thread of Romanticism tied to literary modernism.
I suppose, ideally, it’s what we ought to strive for as writers or artists. But, having no money or resources is rarely hopeful, despite Henry Miller’s claim. Writers need to be paid, and not despise money.
Life without enough resources is just another source of fear that can stifle writing, or any person for that matter, as Trollope so poignantly notes:
It is a mistake to suppose that a man is a better man because he despises money. Few do so, and those few in doing so suffer a defeat. Who does not desire to be hospitable to his friends, generous to the poor, liberal to all, munificent to his children, and to be himself free from the carking fear which poverty creates? The subject will not stand an argument;—and yet authors are told that they should disregard payment for their work, and be content to devote their unbought brains to the welfare of the public. Brains that are unbought will never serve the public much. Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon take away from England her authors.
I started this blog post at around 8 p.m. on a Wednesday. I try to write at the same time every weeknight, currently for about 30 minutes to an hour. It doesn’t always happen, but I try to make a habit of it.
If there is anybody who knows about making a habit of writing, it’s Stephen King. “I like to get ten pages a day,” he writes in “On Writing,” “which amounts to 2,000 words.” He also tries to write every day. By establishing this writing habit early on, King’s become one of the most prolific living writers on the planet.
Ten pages a day seems like a hefty amount, intimidating, really, especially if you were a writer just starting out. But, the king of horror goes on to say that 1,000 words a day, or about five pages, is an achievable goal for new writers—and you can even take a day off. I’ve tried reaching that five-pages-a-day-goal, probably after reading “On Writing” for the first time. It’s tough. Blank pages, blank Word documents are intimidating. Trying to sit still long enough to do it when you have the blank screen and no words coming is intimidating.
Of course, what’s intimidating you is fear. “Fear,” writes Richard Rhodes in another favorite book on writing “How To Write,” “stops more people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”
Similar questions or harsher ones probably cross your mind when you sit down to write, although Rhodes offers a good way to break the wall of writer’s block: “When fear is upon you, write for yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write as long as you do it regularly [habit, again]. Set aside an hour or a half-hour daily or as often as you can . . . .Forget spelling . . . . Forget punctuation if paying attention to it inhibits you—you can always add it later. . . . Don’t think about how you’re writing: write.”
It doesn’t really matter—especially at first—what you write, you just have to write, Rhodes notes, even if you’re just writing about a process.
I’ve spent a good part of my writing life trying to develop a consistent writing habit. One of the more difficult aspects of establishing a writing habit is working it around a full-time job, especially when that job involves writing. Working for newspapers made it even more difficult, given the erratic schedules I’ve followed. Shifting your mind from nonfiction to fiction can be difficult too, but I was able to do it.
Establishing a writing habit has many purposes. If you’re writing fiction, when you write regularly, it keeps you in the world you are creating. “Once I start work on a project,” King writes, “I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to ‘feel’ like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.”
I think this can be said for nonfiction as well. An article or essay can grow stale, you can lose the narrative and the connection of one thought to the other. Even writing daily, you can get lost and essay too far from the original path.
Establishing a habit helps you tap into the flow of your imagination, into the unconscious mind without needing to wait for the Muse to whisper in your ear. The Muse, as King notes, is “a hard-headed guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. . . .Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making magic.”
But, you can also hurt yourself psychically if you’re too rigid about sticking to your habit. As Roy Peter Clark notes in his chapter about “On Writing” in “Murder Your Darlings,” a writing habit can be self-defeating, especially if you’ve set up some staggeringly impossible rate of productivity. “You do not have to exercise every day to gain maximum health benefit,” Clark writes. “In the same spirit, do not be discouraged by violating your self-imposed writing schedule.”
Clark’s right about this. You overwork yourself lifting weights, say, and you strain or tear a muscle, you’re not getting any benefit from the exercise. You keep working out, trying to work past the pain, and not heal, you hurt yourself worse. No pain, no gain is bullshit. No writing every day, no success is bullshit too. When you beat yourself up for not writing every day, or not getting in 2,000 words a day, you’re reacting to another form of fear, the authoritarian and demanding ego telling you, “You can’t really be a writer if you don’t write every day.” Listening to that voice can be as debilitating as not writing at all and never producing anything.
Still, at the same time, to be a writer, you must write. When you establish a writing habit, you’re working past fear, and becoming productive. You’re producing words, sentences, paragraphs, pages. Pages become articles, stories, and books. A page a day is a book a year, as Rhodes notes. If your intention is to become a professional writer, you have to produce, and then submit what you write. And that’s another fear you have to overcome—the fear of submitting what you write, the fear of being rejected, or maybe even the fear of being accepted.
I’ve set up my own walls when it comes to developing a career as a professional writer. Oh, I could establish a writing habit. Often, even with a full-time job, I could make time to write, but mostly what I would write—as far as fiction goes—were writing exercises from writing books. Not to say I didn’t learn anything. I did.
As an aside: No matter what kind of writing you do, if you want to challenge yourself, do the exercises in John Gardner’s book “The Art of Fiction.”
So, I wrote those exercises. I incorporated them in my writer’s toolbox. When I got my first newspaper job, I wove some of those skills I learned into my journalism. Using these tools certainly made me a better feature writer.
The thing is, I aspired to write fiction, and I was writing fiction when I wrote those exercises. I just wasn’t finishing anything. I wasn’t putting all those techniques together into a finished project. Or it took me months just to write a short story when I finally put it all together. I would revise and polish and polish and revise the same story. I might submit it once or twice to the big prominent magazines and journals like The New Yorker or The Paris Review, and once the story was rejected, I’d set it aside, and find a new book with more exercises.
Doing the exercises was a way to tell myself that I was dedicated to the art and craft of writing without really being productive. I was also learning—sometimes from the writing books—to disdain the notion of being a “professional writer,” while at the same time I craved being published. I craved a literary life, one in which I wasn’t really producing a whole lot of literature.
When I first read “On Writing,” I didn’t pay too much attention to King’s section on developing a career as a writer. I wish I had paid more attention to it. King’s composite writer, “Frank,” as his success grows, as he begins to publish more, he begins to think in terms of publishing as a business. He begins to see himself and presents himself as a professional writer. He takes as much care crafting letters to agents and publishers as he does crafting his stories. Those letters are like a resume, the first thing a potential employer usually sees of you.
Of course, in the 20 years since “On Writing” was published, publishing has changed drastically, especially as indie publishing has gained more and more respect. Still, King’s advice has value. You have to keep producing. You have to submit. You have to act as if you are a professional, whether you take a traditional route, an indie route, or become a hybrid.
And, writing is about more than publishing and producing and making lots of money. Writing is always about writing. “I have written,” King writes, “because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.”
Writing’s something I hope to do forever because it gives me joy. I make a habit of it because I can travel through my imagination. I make a habit of it because it helps me think and is meaningful. Of course, making a great deal of dough from it wouldn’t hurt too much either.
I’m a latecomer to mysteries and crime fiction. Until about five or six years ago, I had little interest in the genre, unless you count spy novels like John le Carre’s “The Russia House” or “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” or even a few of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Occasionally in my reading life over the years I’d pick up a book like William Hjortsberg’s “Nevermore” based on a friend’s recommendation, and of course there’s the obligatory high school reading of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and several of Poe’s short stories. I would probably count a science-fiction novel like China Mieville’s “The City & The City” as a mystery too.
My interest in crime fiction developed, when late in my journalism career, I began writing about crime. Writing about crime in real life spawned an interest in writing mysteries, and the writer in me said, “If you’re going to try to write mysteries, you might want to read mysteries.” That led me to a whole lot of catch-up reading, which, in turn, led me becoming a fan, and wondering why I had ever neglected the genre in the first place.
I have my suspicions, of course, but I won’t get into them too deeply here. Some of the neglect has to do with the literary snobbishness I developed as a graduate-level English major in the 90s, snobbery that robbed me of crime fiction well into my forties. It’s the same sort of snobbery that made me turn my back on fantasy and science fiction, though crime fiction seems to have a little more clout among the literati—the why of that is another question worth investigating some other time.
Anyhow, in my catch-up period, one of the writers I had long wanted to read was Georges Simenon, the Belgian creator of Inspector Jules Maigret. I first read about Simenon, a prodigious drinker, in Donald Goodwin’s “Alcohol and the Writer”. Before I read any fiction by Simenon, my next encounter with him, if I’m recalling right, was in a reprint of his Paris Review interview, where I became even more intrigued by the author himself, and especially his output. When he was ready to write a novel, he’d block out two weeks on his calendar to write and revise it. He wrote hundreds of novels—75 of which were in the Maigret series— and novellas, as well as scores of stories and articles. Many of the Maigret novels are under 200 pages. “The Yellow Dog,” the first and so far only novel of his that I’ve read, is 134 pages in a Penguin translation published in 2013. It also has 11 chapters, so a chapter a day and three days to revise.
First published in French in 1931, “The Yellow Dog” is the fifth in the Maigret series. I mistakenly thought it was the first, misreading the About the Author blurb, which says the novel was the “first Maigret novel to be adapted for the big screen.” (See, easy mistake, when you’re rapidly flipping through pages in the local Barnes & Noble trying to find the first book of a series). The novel’s set in Concarneau, a small port town in northwestern France, and Maigret is sent there when the city’s biggest wine dealer Monsieur Mostaguen is shot and wounded by an unknown assailant. After Maigret arrives more crimes ensue: a retired newspaperman Jean Servieres disappears after his blood-stained car is found near a river, and a customs agent gets shot in the leg. Each of the crimes seems to be haunted by a strange yellow dog and rumors of a giant vagrant lurking about.
Fears mount in the small town as Maigret investigates these crimes. The town’s fears become so elevated that usually busy streets become deserted and “deathly silent” by four o’clock when the street lamps are turned on (it’s early November). “It was as if the strollers had passed the word. In less than a quarter of an hour the streets had emptied, and when footsteps sounded, they were hurried ones of someone anxious to get to the shelter of home.” People get so tense that someone shoots the yellow stray, which howls in the street where it’s shot like “some supernatural creature.” (I wonder if this is a nod to “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.)
Clearly, fear is the novel’s dominant theme. The word itself appears throughout the text. “FEAR REIGNS IN CONCARNEAU,” a newspaper headline reads, in a Chapter with the same title. As Maigret wraps up the investigation and is about to make the big reveal, he says, “‘I’d like to talk to you a little more about fear, because that’s what underlies this whole business.'” This in a Chapter titled “Fear.” Simenon expertly chooses the right words to evoke fear as well. In one scene, a telephone “jangled,” as if its nerves were shot.
Simenon also plays with supernatural elements to add to the chilling atmosphere. By the way, it’s almost always cold. The wounded dog has a supernatural howl, a doctor appears as pale as a ghost. These kinds of details, along with references to fear and death appear throughout the novel. It’s the kind of detail writers should pay attention to. Repetition of images and words are always clues to what a writer is thinking, as Roy Peter Clark notes in “The Art of X-Ray Reading”. Use your words carefully, build your images.
But it’s the atmosphere of fear that Simenon evokes that’s the most intriguing. Here is a small town where everybody knows everybody, and it’s suddenly disrupted by a crime, which seems to be an attempt at murder. The longer the crime goes unsolved, the greater the fear, the more pressure Maigret is put under to solve the crime. That’s how crime works in real life too. It acts on our fears, whether we’re victims or not. Of course, Maigret is a competent investigator, trained to work past all the noise and pressure to actually get the crime solved.
Fear is the mind-killer—to borrow from science-fiction’s “Dune”— in crime fiction and in life. Fear is a product of ignorance. In a mystery, fear is generated by not knowing who the killer is and the characters in the novel wondering “Will I be next?” It’s the question asked by the press in “The Yellow Dog”—“Whose turn next?” is a subhead in a newspaper article. In fiction and real life, we are always ignorant of the unknown. That’s why we fear it. We don’t have the ability of precognition like the precogs in Philip K. Dick’s story “Minority Report,” on which the 2002 Tom Cruise movie was loosely based. We can’t catch criminals before they commit crimes. We can’t know if the guy in the trenchcoat at the movie theater is just cold on a January night, or if he’s about to whirl around and start blasting with a shotgun. We can’t know—if we’re black—whether the next cop that pulls you over is going to give you a ticket or shoot you. It’s that fear of the unknown that leaders manipulate and use to arouse suspicion and distrust toward protesters. Whose store gets looted next? Whose store gets burned down? We need law and order and tear gas, lots of tear gas, and bludgeoning people. That’ll stop the fears. Meanwhile, a block away, a kid enjoys an ice cream cone. Of course, there are things to be afraid of, and fear is useful. Sometimes, for instance, when the wolves are at your heels, you need to heed the flight instinct and run. Simenon and other crime writers, when they’re really good, capture our fears at all levels.
Whose turn next? Nobody knows. Nobody can know. And fear will always be the mind-killer if we let it.
I met Gerald Warfield about 10 years ago. He was one of the first people I met at the North Texas Speculative Fiction Workshop. It would turn out he was one of the most insightful writers in the group, and generous with his critiques. The critiques were just as insightful. They could be tough, but always kind, never condescending or snarky, and often right on target. He made me a better fiction writer.
But Gerald was more than just an insightful writer who provided great techniques, he became a good friend. When I needed a place to live in 2014, he rented an apartment to me. He owned a home in Mineral Wells, Texas, that he had converted into apartments, and I rented the apartment below his. Over the time that I lived and worked in Mineral Wells, I got to know Gerald and his family—mostly his nieces and nephews. I learned more about his life: in his time, he studied music at Princeton, published books on music theory and composition, and at one point was an amateur herpetologist, studying and rescuing sea turtles. He would write an unpublished YA novel “Treader” about his experiences with the turtles.
He also published several science-fiction short stories, including a Writers of the Future winner. You can read it in Writer’s of the Future, volume XXVIII.
Gerald encouraged me in my writing, and I valued our occasional front porch chats on books, politics, and how his beloved garden was faring. The garden took over the front- and backyard of our place. I’m sure the postal carrier wasn’t happy to have to work around the branches of a small tree that grew around the mailbox. Gerald could tell me the name of every flower—I can’t remember many, if any. Was it thyme or lavender out front hanging over the sidewalk? Right now, I can’t remember.
Gerald died at 80 this last weekend from liver cancer. What I will remember more than any plant in his garden or any story he wrote or critiqued is the generosity of spirit. Every Christmas, his present to us renters was a rent-free month. And more than once, when I had hard time making ends meet on a journalist’s salary, he was kind enough to let me pay out rent as I could or the electric bill when I could.
In January, Gerald decided to sell the house and move to Florida with one of his many nephews. This meant I would have to move. The day I moved, I found out he had gone into the hospital.
The last time I heard from Gerald was a week after I had moved. He was calling, worried about me because I hadn’t picked up my mail. He wasn’t aware I had moved. I had gotten busy with the move and hadn’t told him. That call was when I learned he had cancer, but he was more concerned about me. It was like Gerald always was, generous, kind, and concerned as always.
So, farewell, friend. You made my life better in many ways.