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“You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work” — Richard Rhodes on writing (Mayborn 2012, vol. 2)

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Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and of 23 other books, delivered one of the keynotes at this year’s Mayborn Conference for Literary Journalism. Here are five top takeaways from that address, followed by an edited transcript of his talk and a snippet from the Q-and-A session that followed.

Verity is the new workhorse. It carries all the freight of fiction but adds the density of fact. Robert Frost, the poet, once famously described writing free verse, cadenced voice with rhyme, as playing tennis with the net down. Verity raises the net and draws it taut, adding a challenge to the game that the game is better for.

The real poverty of the textbook school of writing is its apparent ignorance of the power of language to re-animate the world – the world of history, of technology, of science, of people, the natural world, whatever the subject might be. Stripping a text of its resonances, its rhetoric, of its performance of itself doesn’t make it clearer; it just makes it deader.

The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. And when you’re ready, you can share it with others. The world will be a little warmer place as a result.

The work of writing is fundamental to all the many other forms that follow from it, whether printed books, digital books, theater, or television documentary and drama, and film and all their digital elaborations.

If you learn to write, learn to write well, learn to make people and events come alive in words whether fictionally or veritably. You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work, work that uses, work that demands everything you’ve got. Who could ask for more? 

And the full talk:

So verity: Let’s begin with that.

In Standard English, verity means “truth,” of the Latin veritas.

Veritas was a Roman goddess. A pure, young thing. She was considered so elusive; she was believed to reside in the bottom of a sacred well.

I borrow the word ‘verity’ as a term of art to replace the term “nonfiction.” I think “nonfiction” as a designation of a whole broad field of writing is dismissive, which may be why this conference qualifies itself as concerning “literary nonfiction.”

Nonfiction as a term has no long heritage, which surprised me when I looked it up. In its first published reference, hyphenated, it appears in the annual reports of the Boston Public Library in 1867. I imagine a librarian trying to decide the other books besides fiction, in order to put them in another place in the library, came up with the term “nonfiction.”

Rhodes

I dislike the word because it designates the kind of writing we do with a negative: non-fiction, not fiction, (reminding) us that we nonfiction writers dwell in the swampy depths beneath poetry and fiction. Well, poetry’s a special case. I’ve written fiction and I’ve written verity, and I can say with confidence that verity is in no way fiction’s foe. It’s actually more challenging to write than fiction, because it adds to all the challenges of writing fiction a further challenge of building the elements of the real world. Elements with external reference. Fiction you can just make up. Verity you have to verify.

The joke is on the Olympians, however. Verity is coming to its kingdom, leaving poetry and fiction behind. Poetry, like firewood, once heated and lighted the world so that Darwin’s grandfather, for example, had Erasmus lay out his theory of evolution in the form of a book-length poem. But poetry became niche material a century or more ago. Fiction is bifurcating into popular and literary, and if the popular kind is coal, pungent and sulfurous, the literary kind is charcoal: relevant and clean but rather a Sunday recreation.

Now, verity is the new workhorse. It carries all the freight of fiction but adds the density of fact. Robert Frost, the poet, once famously described writing free verse, cadenced voice with rhyme, as playing tennis with the net down. Verity raises the net and draws it taut, adding a challenge to the game that the game is better for. To extract meaning from the real takes imagination. It takes wit to find, as the art of finding similarities in seemingly dissimilar things.

If verity is craft, fiction is witchcraft.

If verity is science, fiction is magic.

Nothing wrong with a little magic now and then, a little witchcraft. We all like to feel the hair rise on the back of our necks sometimes. But with change accelerating and the future spilling into the present like a flood, there is value and there is joy in weighing and testing and making sense. It’s not as if anything is lost writing verity. You still have to think and feel deeply. You still have to read between the lines. The best work, like the best love, should use everything you have. Verity, if you do it well, not only uses everything, it depends on it.

The sad, ugly change that followed when nonfiction was divided off from fiction was that verity was somehow devalued. Or maybe the delineation happened in school when history was condensed to textbooks but fiction was left beneath its covers to be read intact.

As a thought experiment, imagine if fiction were treated in the schoolbooks like verity, simplified, paraphrased, burglarized, stupefied. If I were a librarian, I would dump it off as non-verity, too. The assumption apparently was that verity is a sort of pudding, studded with raisins called facts, and that the facts could be extracted from the pudding and contextualized much more tidily and literally by the textbook authors. Who needs Gibbon to go on for six volumes about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Who needs the journals of Lewis and Clark when a filling-station road map will do? Who needs Jefferson’s notes on Virginia when he doesn’t have all the facts straight? Who needs Ulysses S. Grant on the Civil War?

Narrative, the historians of the academy announced, was inherently flawed. How was it flawed?

Oh my God, it introduced into history the methods of fiction.

Narrative filled the gaps between facts, facts being defined as bits of information anchored in documents; narrative filled the gaps with structure, opinion, even speculation. It made history a conversation, a humanistic enterprise.

Writing is writing.

As a craft, it’s highly abstract. You’re not throwing clay. You’re not carving wood. You’re organizing verbal symbols into sequences that convey meaning. Considering how elusive meaning can be, considering how far down in the holy well sweet little veritas crouches, hidden. It’s a wonder readers make any sense of it at all. Truth be told, they often don’t.

By actual measure, the language level of most New York Times best sellers is that of an eighth-grade reader. That’s one way best sellers sort themselves out from other books.

We don’t have an obligation to write at the eighth-grade level, but given the long, narrowing channel that stretches from our experiences to prose, and from our prose to the reader’s brain, we are obliged to help readers understand in every way we can. We do that by controlling the variables as well as we know how. By variables, I don’t only mean dictionary definitions. Ninety-nine percent of all the words in the language are metaphors. They have natural histories and they accumulate meanings as they evolve. Some of those meanings drop off along the way but most of them remain intact. If you’re oblivious to that, you’re not likely to communicate what you think you mean to say. That’s the negative.

The positive is that controlling as much as you have the gifts and the skill to control adds power, resonance, depth. The real poverty of the textbook school of writing is its apparent ignorance of the power of language to re-animate the world – the world of history, of technology, of science, of people, the natural world, whatever the subject might be. Stripping a text of its resonances, its rhetoric, of its performance of itself doesn’t make it clearer; it just makes it deader.

That’s what I mean when I said the historians of the academy put on their rubber aprons when they espoused a pseudoscientific historiography. They turned from restoring life to dead texts to autopsying them. Which means they turned from talking to the rest of us, to talking among themselves.

From time to time, I teach a two-hour master class at Stanford for students preparing to write their senior dissertations in international relations. In the advance of class, I tell them to send me several pages of their writing to review. I pencil-edit their samples to the standard to which I hold my own writing, and then we talk about them. I’m continually amazed at how few students, even at the senior level of a first-rate university, are aware that they use a fictional voice when they’re writing. They think, evidently, the voice in which they narrate their dissertations is their own voice, the voice of the self-talk that goes on inside their heads, the voice of their consciousness. But anyone who has ever gone through the exercise of actually transcribing his self-talk directly knows that it’s a mishmash full of half-thoughts, isolated words, sentence fragments, all the shorthand and code and private references we use to save time and energy when we’re mentally processing something.

Students I work with don’t seem to make that connection. They imagine they’re thinking directly onto the page, like the brainwave systems under development that will allow fighter pilots to operate their planes hand-free just with their thoughts. In consequence of this misapprehension, my students think style, point of view, rhetorical level and so on are basically decorative issues, issues that for some unknown reason seem to engage their instructors passionately but issues that have nothing to do with the serious business of putting their sure, unalloyed thoughts onto paper. Needless to say, my editing of their writing samples is usually quite a shock.

The truth is: Writing is translation, among other things. It’s translation because the rather alien, multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial, associative, only-partly-conscious mental processes that precede it are far too scattered and fugitive to make sense to anyone but yourself, and even yourself only listens by fits and starts. You have to wade into that glorious slough, start pulling up all the tangles of green underwater goodness, discard the dross, sort and shape and select and, yes, stupefy, to turn some of what’s in your head into those verbal symbols on the page that replicate something in the mind of the average passing stranger.

What’s in your head is seemingly infinitely richer than what you finally get down on the page. I think that’s why some people never actually get the writing done. They have a dream of a book in their head, and every attempt to write it down feels impoverished. The difference used to bother me until I thought about what the tradeoff was. The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. And when you’re ready, you can share it with others. The world will be a little warmer place as a result. You’ll have added an invaluable bit of organized intelligence to the dissolving world. That’s the trade-off. It’s worth it, believe me, I’ve done it now for more than 40 years, across 26 books and several hundred magazine articles and book reviews. The real, you can hold in your arms. The real trumps the ideal, any day of the week.

It’s hard work, the best kind. Writing takes everything you can bring to it. Doing it well requires everything you’ve got – every gift, every skill, every sudden insight, every experiment, guess, throw of the dice, flight of fancy, and every trick of the trade.

Of course, I don’t mean making up the facts. I’m not of the school that believes embroidering your life history to spice up your memoir is virtuous. God knows memory is unreliable enough. Verity differs from fiction in that its facts can be checked with external reference. But that’s the only way, I would argue, that the two forms differed where the process of making them are concerned.

The opening of a book is an important moment when you hope to engage the reader’s passing attention long enough to draw her in. You have to set the scene and bring it alive and to some extent; you have to establish the level of rhetoric you intend to use throughout the book. If you write from beginning to end as I do, you may also be experimenting with the rhetorical level, and behind it with the voice you need to find to tell the story.

We will need all the skill we can muster in the years ahead. The practical world of publishing is changing with the advent of visual technologies, change that will be as revolutionary as the change that came to the world when Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type and all this minutiae devising that made books small enough to carry.

It isn’t at all clear to me how the research and writing of long-form texts will be supported. So far, print publishers have responded to the competition to visual by reducing advances to authors, making it increasingly difficult for independent writers without private means to find the time to write. In its panic of declining book sales, the publishing industry seems to be going the way of the film industry, which I have heard recently described as, and I quote, “now actually destroying itself” – this observer goes on – “because it’s harder to get financing and audience, companies are competing to make bigger, costlier films while eliminating risk, which is why ever more movies are based on intellectual properties.” In other words, they’re sequels.

The book counterpart to this observation is the increasing flow of advances to established best-selling writers and celebrity books, while advances to midlist writers have been cut by half or more. If a book proposal is even funded in the first place, as a midlist author my own work would hardly have been possible across these past 40 years without foundation grants, often usually from the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation in New York, bless its name, in my writing about science and technology. Not many foundations make book grants, however. And those that do necessarily limit themselves to books in specific subject areas. I might’ve written about many other book subjects in my career. One reason I’ve written so much about science and technology is that foundation grants have supported that work.

I don’t know the answer to this new fundamental, economic challenge. I bring it up in part to bond us together because the test of true journalism in a writer, I’ve observed across the years, is that when you get together with other writers, you don’t discuss actual literary matters. You bitch about your publisher.

This much I do know: The work of writing is fundamental to all the many other forms that follow from it, whether printed books, digital books, theatre, or television documentary and drama, and film and all their digital elaborations.

If you learn to write, learn to write well, learn to make people and events come alive in words whether fictionally or veritably. You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work, work that uses, work that demands everything you’ve got. Who could ask for more? 

Q-and-A with audience:

Q: What writers have you found valuable? What has fed you?

Rhodes: I always have to think back to the particular best that other writers have sourced from me. Once you get into writing books based on documentary research, you spend 99.9 percent of your time reading those documents and previous books. I like to joke that books are made up of pulped-up previous books, and in a certain sense, they are. But as an impact over the years, the books that move me most deeply and really engage me and got me started in writing were, in particular, early on the works of Faulkner. Faulkner, Moby Dick and Herman Melville’s work; I was really amazed at Ralph Waldo Emerson, of all people. One of the jobs I had along the way to becoming a full-time writer was doing public relations for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, where I grew up and lived until I was 50 years old. We we developed a line of little gift books and they were all exactly 64 pages long, which made for some interesting editing. Most of all: Whitman. I still am just dazzled when I read his work. I keep saying to myself, as I’m sure every writer in this room does when they encounter work of a certain level, “How the hell do you do that?” And with Whitman especially because it sounds so conversational, seems so, so easy to do, and obviously, would still be with us and still resonating for us.

Q: One of the hallmarks in your work in science has been nuclear annihilation. One of our writers, Beth Langton, went out and spent some time with you, and she came away, after talking with you for several days, (with the idea) that you were trying to make your own sense of annihilation, that that was part of your motivation. I was wondering if you could talk about that: You grew up with this cruel stepmother who constantly inflicted terror in your life.

Rhodes: My wife is a clinical psychologist, and she likes to point out that her and her colleagues became psychologists by accident. They had issues, y’know? They were interested in exploring. I’ve only written one book-length biography, the book Audubon. Within the histories I’ve written are many biographies, are people, particularly scientists given what I’ve written about. It seems to me almost universal that they have their characteristic life preoccupations in place by the time they’re 12 years old, or maybe 16. Certainly that was true for the scientists I wrote about, and of course it was true for me. My mother committed suicide in the heart of the depression when I was a 13-month-old infant. And my father tried to raise my older brother and I in boarding houses in Kansas City, Mo.; he did a pretty good job until he married, eventually, a woman who decided that we were a good source of day labor and night labor. We didn’t get enough to eat, and we went through the usual kinds of mistreatment that children often go through in the world. We were lucky, I was lucky; my brother, a brave 13-year-old, went to the police when she was threatening him with a baseball bat one day. And even though it was 1949, when there was little social support in place in the United States to deal with children under those circumstances, we lucked out. We met a social worker later who handled our case, and she said, “We really didn’t know what to do with you boys. You had two parents. Which was definitely the standard at the time. But you were both so obviously starved.” Which we were. So we went, by luck, to one of those old farm schools, a private home for boys, and lived there for the next six years, until I finished high school. It was not a psychologically oriented institution, quite the opposite really; it was a farm. I lived in the natural world and planted things and saw them grow up, saw the cycle of life, learned to do rural things like butchering animals, which is a pretty shocking thing to learn. But even that had context for us, so it was a very healing institution to be a part of. Then I got a nice college scholarship and went off to my life.

So of course my preoccupations are with human violence and where it comes from and most of all what can we do about it and how do we survive it? And I suppose the most large-scale violence we as a species have ever been able to learn to inflict on ourselves is nuclear weapons, but I’ve also written a book about what makes individuals violent, based on the work of a criminologist I wrote about in the book, whose model of violence developments seemed so robust and well-supported by evidence. He interviewed about 200 violent criminals for an average of 10 hours each in prisons in California, where he was doing graduate work at Berkeley. I decided to see if it would fit another context and then wrote a book about the SS-Einsatzgruppen group, who were a group of men who shot Jewish victims into bits all over Eastern Europe; about 1 1/2 million people were killed that way.

So I looked into violence. All of this, I say somewhere in my book: You think you’re choosing a different subject. You think you’re writing something totally disconnected from the last book you wrote, but it all somehow bubbles up anyway. We really cannot escape our characteristic childhood preoccupations.

Einstein at the age of 5 was both fascinated and terrified by the question, “Where does the light go?” Later in life he said: “It’s really because I didn’t grow up.” I sort of remained a child, asking questions about these deep fundamental questions.

I’ve just turned 75, and I feel like I’m way beyond those years. But right now, I’m feeling like it’s time to get that big book on human violence done.

I used to try to write everything in this sort of 19th-century English historian style. Not everything of course, but the history I was working on. I deliberately chose that style for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, because I felt like it was a very large theme and deserved to be treated with that scale of language, if you will, to be embedded in that tradition so that the reader would feel she was reading something on the scale of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or whatever. But when I got to Audubon for example, writing a biography, I didn’t want it to be ponderous. Audubon was a wonderful, charming, light-footed man who could sing and used to teach dancing on the plantations of the Mississippi River and New Orleans. He could play the flute and the guitar, he could braid hair; he was just the most remarkable guy. To inflict on him ponderous periodic sentences didn’t seem appropriate, so what I did was, whenever my impulse was to hit the semicolon, I hit the period, and it worked very well.

In fact, I would almost go so far as to say you could style a narrative with something that simple. I also decided with The Making of the Atomic Bomb I would not use any contractions, so there are no don’ts or can’ts or ain’ts or whatever. I let everything go in its full range of language. But that’s not true with other books. Other books are written in different ways. The language in your book needs to be appropriate to the book you’re writing.

Don’t miss our other Mayborn coverage, including the talk, on voice, between GQ’s Jeanne Marie Laskas and Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake, moderated by Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery. Tomorrow: a final recap, featuring Pulitzer-winning author Isabel Wilkerson.




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  1. [...] Isabel Wilkerson on finding the perfect characters; and Pulitzer-winning author Richard Rhodes on the writing life.) This week’s schedule of Mayborn 2013 [...]

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