Celebrating a colleague’s book contract

I’ve been reading Richard’s blog for some time now and following the progress of his writing. Very happy for him.

Celebrating my book contract.

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The Barest of Beginnings

Almost Human: Making Robots ThinkAlmost Human: Making Robots Think by Lee Gutkind

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It may be a long time before we have robots as sophisticated as R2D2 or C3P0, but roboticists get closer every day as they work toward making robots think. Lee Gutkind’s Almost Human: Making Robots Think tours through contemporary robotics research — largely at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh — and gives readers a glimpse of where we are going with this particular technology and reveals that getting to the point of making independent thinking machines is at “the barest beginning.”

Gutkind focuses heavily on researchers involved in trying to find out whether robots could traverse the rugged extraterrestial terrain of Mars and perform independent experiments to discover signs of life on the Red Planet.

One intriguing concept Gutkind follows briefly is the idea of human/robot interactions — that humans will have to learn to adjust to almost-human machines in the same way we are having to adjust to the rapid advances in computer technology.

But most of all Gutkind puts a human stamp on the machines, potraying in depth the scientists and engineers behind the robots. We find out these researchers are driven, willing to put in long, grueling hours into designing and testing their machines. Gutkind’s portrait is reminiscent of Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine, an examination of the computer revolution in the ’70s and ’80s.

What Gutkind finds, I believe, is that the soul of these new machines is human.

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Stumbling into Buddha

The Accidental Buddhist
By Dinty W. Moore
Doubleday, 1997, 208 pages

Lashing memoirs for their self-indulgent, whiny navel-gazing seems common among critics of the genre — although the memoirs/autobiographies I’ve read over the past few years have been anything but whiny or self-indulgent.

Dinty Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist, a spiritual autobiography, is not whiny or self-indulgent.

It’s also not “inspirational”; it’s not a testimonial autobiography intended to uplift the reader and send him or out to shout “Namaste!” over the hills and everywhere, or to go out, ring doorbells and deliver good karma. It’s also not an in depth theological-philosophical exploration of Buddhism that would require a degree in philosophy, theology, or quantum physics to understand.

It is, at the very least, a good story, a narrative that leads the reader from Moore’s project to explore why Americans have become interested in Buddhism and what American Buddhism was like to his own spiritual discoveries: why did he seek out Buddhism? could he become a Buddhist? and what kind of Buddhist would he become?

Like many of us who hit a certain age beyond 20-something, Moore had come to a point in his life in which he “wasn’t particularly happy . . . . I was just getting along . . . . No matter where I went, what I did, I always felt a little bit empty.” Instead of sitting back and letting that emptiness overwhelm him, and simply keep puttering along, Moore set out to understand that feeling, to confront it, and see if it could be filled.

Of course, like most spiritual seekers, Moore’s journey didn’t begin as a journey toward enlightenment: it began as a project. A writer and writing teacher, Moore set out on the quest with a story in mind. He was going to write about Buddhism in America.

Much of the book is solid first-person reportage: he tells stories about his experiences at Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, and writes about other American Buddhists such as Linsi Deyo and her husband Patrick Clark, who run a meditation cushion business from their farm in North Carloina’s Great Smoky Mountains. He weaves these stories into his own budding understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist and his beginning practice.

Buddhism wasn’t foreign to Moore. “As for myself,” he writes, “I had toyed with Buddhist philosophy in my young adulthood. Like millions of other college kids, I read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in one long weekend, put it down thinking my life had been forever transformed, then promptly forgot about it. I even took a meditation class once, but never got past how to fold my legs.”

It’s only later, after reading a few other books and setting out on his book project, that he begins his spiritual journey. It starts with his experiences with meditation, an essential practice of Buddhism, at Zen Mountain Monastery. He tries various schools: Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada. Like most Americans, no matter their faith, he takes bits and pieces from each of the schools and practices with others and alone. As the story unfolds, he slowly begins to see what it means to be a Buddhist.

What makes this memoir engaging, besides Moore’s skills as a storyteller, is what makes the best spiritual autobiographers — C. S. Lewis, Karen Armstrong — engaging: He gives us himself warts and all. Like any of us with any spiritual or philosophic questions, Moore goes through periods of doubt. He constantly wonders if he can be a Buddhist, if he can ever rid himself of his “monkey mind,” and experience enlightenment. His enthusiasm  for the new-old religion slackens: “At times, it seems as if the only real point is to somehow keep holding it all together. Life becomes a loop of concern and uncertainty.”

Then Moore carries on and discovers he can be a Buddhist after all. And he does it with humor and humanity — and imperfection.

Some Gems from Frank Conroy

I wanted to share this post from Richard at Narrative:

Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir

Conroy’s one of my favorite writers. I read his memoir Stop-Time about a decade ago, after trying to write a short story about my then strained relationship with my dad. While Conroy’s narrative about his relationship with his father is absorbing — it’s not the whole subject of the memoir — what drew me in most were Conroy’s sentences — deceptively simple declarative sentences packed with meaning.

Stop-Time‘s also one of the first creative-nonfiction memoirs I’d ever read. It’s a fine example of the form.

Some of  the interview excerpts from Richard’s post that drew me into Conroy’s mind:

“The power and almost obscene wealth of parts of America resemble nothing so much as the Roman Empire. I don’t understand why people aren’t completely scandalized by the degrading of humanity through films and television over the last twenty years, a degradation of the soul. I’m not religious, but I insist on being able to use some of the concepts generally scorned in a secular society. The soul and spirituality are important parts of life . . . . The spiritual emptiness of society is very deep and unsettling, so people are looking for something better.”

“I don’t believe in the natural writer. I believe in the natural reader who gradually begins to write. You can’t write independent of literature, so you read, you read, you read, you read, you read, and then you begin to write.”

John McPhee’s New Book Gets Personal – latimes.com

When I began my journalism career close to 10 years ago I knew nothing about the terms literary journalism/creative nonfiction. I knew the term “new journalism” coined by Tom Wolfe; I had read his collection of pieces by “new” journalists like Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion. I had also read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, wherein Zinsser argued that nonfiction was the new American literature. I longed to write the kind of nonfiction Wolfe and Zinsser were describing.

After I started writing at the newspaper, I started making attempts — however mangled — at “new” journalism, which I had learned by then was also known as literary journalism. At the same time I was discovering and reading great talents such as Susan Orlean and John McPhee. Both were inspiring.

McPhee is a favorite. He has a new book out — Silk Parachute. The L.A. Times recently interviewed him:

John McPhee’s new book gets personal – latimes.com

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More on Exposition and Scene in Creative Nonfiction

In The Practical Stylist (6th Edition) Sheridan Baker offers an excerpt from Loren Eiseley as an example of exposition:

The apes are not all similar in type or appearance. They are men and yet not men. Some are frailer-bodied, some have great, bone-cracking jaws and massive gorilloid crests atop their skulls. This fact leads us to another of Wallace’s remarkable perceptions of long ago. With the rise of the truly human brain, Wallace saw that man had transferred to his machines and tools many of the alterations of parts that in animals take place through evolution of the body. Unwittingly, man had assigned to his machines the selective evolution which in the animal changes the nature of its bodily structure through the ages. Man of today, the atomic manipulator, the aeronaut who flies faster than sound, has precisely the same brain and body as his ancestors of twenty thousand years ago who painted the last Ice Age mammoths on the walls of caves in France.

A detailed descriptive passage, but no motion, and some abstraction. It doesn’t set a scene in the same way narrative summary might. In Write Away, Elizabeth George cites as an example of narrative summary — though fiction —  a passage from E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India:

So the cavalcade ended, partly pleasant, partly not; the Brahman cook was picked up, the train arrived, pushing its burning throat over the plain, and the twentieth century took over the sixteenth. Mrs. Moore entered her carriage, the three men went to theirs, adjusted the shutters, turned on the electric fan and tried to get some sleep. In the twilight, all resembled corpses, and the train itself seemed dead though it moved — a coffin from the scientific north which troubled the scenery four times a day. As it left the Marabars, their nasty little cosmos disappeared, and gave place to the Marabars seen from a distance; finite and rather romantic. The train halted once under a pump, to drench the stock of coal in its tender. Then it caught sight of the main line in the distance, took courage, and bumped forward, rounded the civil station, surmounted the level-crossing (the rails were scorching now), and clanked to a standstill. Chandrapore. Chandrapore! The expedition was over.

A detailed but quick summation of  a train trip. Compare the above to a passage from a scene from Richard Selzer’s “Under the Knife” cited in Tell It Slant:

There is a hush in the room. Speech stops. The hands of the others, assistants and nurses, are still. Only the voice of the patient’s respiration remains. It is the rhythm of a quiet sea, the sound of waiting. Then you speak, slowly, the terse entries of a Himalayan climber reporting back.

The passage further explores the surgery Selzer is describing; it extends it to the dramatic moment the surgeon discovers a cancerous deposit.

These examples are clear to me when another writer points them out. Where I feel I falter is differentiating between fully evolved scene and narrative summary in my own writing.

This week, to reinvigorate the writing juices, I’ve been working on the exercises in Tell It Slant. The first exercise says to go through a piece of your writing, pick out a passage of summary that might work better as a scene, and then write that scene.

Here’s the passage from a piece of writing that I selected:

Of grief I was aware. My August 1, 2006 blog post contemplates what my father might have felt as he lay dying in the hospital. Almost two years after my dad died, I was still haunted by his death. I was not there in the hospital at the moment of his death. I was there several hours before, watching his kidneys fail, his blood rinsing his catheter, while me, my sister, my aunt and my uncle huddled with Dad’s pastor to pray. On my part the prayer was forced; it was to a god long dead, one indifferent to my grief.

Clearly summary of  a dramatic event. Here is the scene I wrote:

For days my father lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, a rasping ventilator tube unnaturally twisting his lips. The ventilator is off, he is alive, but not conscious, or at least, as far as I can tell, not aware anyone is with him, when I get to his room in ICU that Sunday evening. His body is swollen and distorted. His mouth is probably slack, ringed with the vestiges of peppery whiskers. But the image I remember the most is this: a stream of blood, bright red like children’s cough medicine, flushes through the clear plastic catheter tube and winds its way into a clear plastic box at the foot of the bed. Someone — a nurse perhaps — told me kidney failure is the first sign a patient is dying. Or the last. As the blood spills into the box, its tendrils reach into a pool of brackish urine.

At about this moment, if not before, my aunt, uncle, and father’s pastor materialize. When I see the three of them, I become aware of how thick my breath is with beer. The reverend huddles us up for prayer. Her hand touches mine. She and my aunt and uncle bow their heads. The beer fogs my breath so much the odor seems like a permanent fixture in my nostrils. The reverend is saying something, probably my father’s name, something like blah blah blah your servant Parker. I can’t wait until we break our huddle, I can’t wait until the pastor leaves, I can’t wait until my sister gets here.

What I wonder is if I was successful in revising my initial passage into a scene. Or is the revised passage narrative summary?