On the Art of Non-fiction


I was very proud to be included in this year's "Great Nonfiction Writers Lecture Series" at Brown University, my alma mater. This was a very unusual event for me. I often get to speak on the content of my books but pretty rarely speak about the process of writing them. Here's a slightly-edited version of my prepared remarks, delivered Wednesday, November 11, 2009, in a lecture room about thirty yards away from where, twenty-five years before, I first used my excellent fake I.D. to buy a keg of Beck's Dark as a surprise for my friend Andy Kramer's 19th birthday. 


Making the Truth Truthful: Turning "Science" Into Storytelling

First, I want to express how wonderful it is to be back at Brown, and how much this place has meant to me as a person and as a writer. In many ways, I feel like I was born here. Brown was the place where I realized how little I knew, and how freeing a feeling it is to acknowledge your ignorance and dedicate your life to chipping away at it. Brown is where I first came into direct contact with amazing, inventive minds -- a whole campus full of people spilling over with curiosity and exactly the right kind of ambition.

I met so many wonderful people here, and when you undergrads come back to visit five or ten or twenty years from now, you will be flooded and overwhelmed, as I was today, with the memories of all those people who helped you become you.

I want to take a minute to single out three Brown people who meant a lot to me and who are no longer with us. The first is Roger Henkle, my concentration advisor and one of my gateways to the world of literary journalism. Roger was a great mentor to a lot of people I know, and he taught me the most valuable lesson I've ever had: how incredibly lazy I was as a writer, and how that had to change. I'm proud to say it did change -- though Roger never got to see that happen.

Second, the wonderful and strange John Hawkes, who was a great inspiration on the page, in the classroom, and over a beer. I learned much about nonfiction writing in his great fiction class, and drew a lot confidence from his personal encouragement.

And finally, my friend Andy Skoler, who may have been the gentlest soul I've ever known, and who helped recruit me into taking his old job at the Brown Daily Herald. Andy was just a year older than me. He died in his sleep two years ago this month. I want to dedicate my remarks tonight to him.


Nonfiction. I've never liked that word. How can any of us accept such a term that definines us by what we don't do? The word "journalism" is more descriptive, but so pedestrian. Both sound a little better when you put the word "literary" in front, but that still doesn't come very close to conveying my feelings about the possibilites and purpose of writing about real people, places, and ideas. I believe that nonfiction, just like all writing, is an art that demands creativity, humanity, humility, deep thought, endless amounts of attention to detail, and an openness to truth that goes well beyond any list of facts.

Writing great literary nonfiction is something I've aspired to for a very long time -- and still aspire to. My early inspirations were Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and especially John McPhee, writers who showed us that nonfiction could be beautiful and dark and hilarious and revelatory. If you've never read John McPhee's The Crofter and The Laird, I beg you to do so. To me, there is no more perfect book.

What is the quest of a nonfiction writer? In preparation for this talk, I re-read an interview that I did with Tom Wolfe in 1987, a few weeks before he came to speak at Brown (in a slightly larger room than this one). Wolfe said, "To me the great task is to discover things that people haven't noticed, and to bring them to life. To make people see them and understand them for the first time. The great goal is discovery."

That's exactly how I feel. There's no better way to say it.

Of course, if I'm being honest, I do have to ask myself this question: what if Tom Wolfe, who was virtually a god to me at the time, had said that day, in that phone interview, that the great task was something else -- stealing earings from old ladies, for instance, or growing pumpkins, or mixing concrete. Would my life have taken a very different turn? Probably so.

I've written six books if you count the one coming out in a few months. After my first book, I was called a music writer. After the second, Data Smog, people called me a "technology writer." After I wrote The Forgetting, people called me a "science writer." Then I started writing for Gourmet magazine, may it rest in peace, and so I was a food writer. My new book is about genetics and talent, so I suppose "science writer" will return. But the book right before this one was about the history of chess, which to me was really a history of symbolic thinking. So what kind of writer am I, really?

As you might imagine, this is kind of a nightmare for my book publicist who, with each book, is always trying to figure out how to pitch me to the press. A few years ago, I was booked on "Good Morning America" to talk about my chess book, and one of the producers noticed that my previous book had been about Alzheimer's disease. So I get there at 5 in the morning, one thing leads to another, and before I go on, I see on the TV in the green room that they're teasing the interview by asking, "Can Chess Prevent Alzheimer's disease?" It was like a David Shenk mashup.

Around that same time, I had lunch with a good friend who's had quite a number of very successful books -- many of them artfully developed around a single larger theme. Good for building an audience. But it so happened that around the time of this lunch, the third or fourth book in his series was just coming out, and sales were less than exciting. He was understandably a little depressed about this, and seemed to be rethinking his whole author-brand approach. At one point, he looked up at me and said: "You know -- that whole disconnected thing you've done, each book unrelated to one before, no coherent theme...that was a pretty smart move." I guess I'm savvy like Mr. Magoo. I bounce around from thing to thing.

But this is the only way I know how to do it -- to follow my curiosities wherever they go. One of the things I learned at Brown is that the broader your interests are, the more interesting connections you can make, and the better your work will be. In the case of my book The Immortal Game, a wide field of interest allowed me to zig and zag from the art of Marcel Duchamp to the early days of the Muslim Empire to the invention of the number zero and the principles of geometric progression to the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin to the study of memory to the invention of computers and artificial intelligence to the mental instability of Bobby Fischer.

A few pages from The Immortal Game illustrate this point: IGexcerpt.pdf


Let me turn now to the title of this lecture: "Making the truth truthful: Turning science into storytelling." By now you've figured out that when I say "science," I'm really talking about any specialized and complex world waiting to be discovered and conveyed to a general audience. It could be the energy grid. It could be economics. It could be the history of chess. When I say "science," think of anything complex and forbidding.

In my experience, when it comes to writing books about "science" for the public there are a couple of tiny little challenges one has to deal with:

1. People don't want to read books about science. They don't.

2. All the good science is impossibly complex.

3. Most scientists, because they have spent years on the details, think that they understand their work better than you, the writer. Which they do, of course.

Three teeny, tiny, somewhat gigantic, titanic, iceberg-ish problems. But lurking in the shadow of each of these problems are actually three elegant solutions. Let me tackle each one now in some detail.

1. People don't want to read books about science.
But you can trick them into it.

I hope someday I will write about something inherently exciting -- like naked people, or astronauts, or naked astronauts. That will be fun. People will want to read that.

But so far, I've written about stuff like information overload, software design problems, degenerative brain disease, university ownership of science patents, how DNA translates into proteins . . . and chess.

These are not things that people actually want to read about. They are things that people are interested in -- as in, "Ah, tell me more about information proliferation as you pour me another tall glass of excellent scotch." Being interested is not the same thing as wanting to read a book about something. Trust me on this. If any of you are sitting there thinking that you actually do want to read a book about one of these subjects, you are what we in the writing business call a "mutant." We appreciate you, but there are only so many of you.

So my first job as a "science" writer is to come up with devices to get people to read a whole book. The way to do this, of course, is stories. My Alzheimer's book begins with a story about Mark Twain roasting Ralph Waldo Emerson, not realizing that Emerson was in the late stages of senile dementia. My new book on genetics and talent begins with a great story about how absurdly hard Ted Williams worked to become the best hitter that ever lived. My chess book, which was aimed at the 99.5 percent of the population who could care less about chess, has a beginning that could fit perfectly well in a Ridley Scott movie:

Large rocks, severed heads, and flaming pots of oil rained down on Baghdad, capital of the vast Islamic Empire, as its weary defenders scrambled to reinforce gates, ditches, and the massive stone walls surrounding the fortress city's many brick and teak palaces. Giant wooden manjaniq catapults bombarded distant structures while the smaller, more precise arradah catapult guns pelted individuals with grapefruit-sized rocks. Arrows flew thickly and elite horsemen assaulted footmen with swords and spears. "The horses . . . trample the livers of courageous young men," lamented the poet al-Khuraymi, "and their hooves split their skulls."

Get them reading and keep them reading. That is what I'm always thinking about when I write. If a writer has an interesting idea and nobody reads it, it's worthless. I want people to enjoy themselves reading my stuff, and when we get to an idea that's a little bit difficult or complicated, I want them to have a strong motivation to read that part with an alert brain, knowing that on the other side of this heavy, thinky section -- about how the brain turns experience into memories, or what identical and fraternal twin studies really teach us -- there's the continuation of a lighter story that they've already been reading and enjoying. So from word to word, sentence to sentence, page to page, chapter to chapter, I am constantly thinking about how not to lose the reader.

I don't think of this as a cynical act at all. Writing stories brings meaning to the process. It makes books more fun to write, and gives them more energy. It makes the material as human as possible, and that's what any good book needs most of all -- humanity.

I realize that there is a very good argument against this approach, which is that when one is not demanding of the reader, the reader isn't as engaged. I'm not making them work like Joyce or Faulkner -- or like John Hawkes, actually. Some might contend that if one doesn't demand a lot of intense mental effort from the reader, the big ideas aren't going to sink in. I think this is a strong argument. I just don't personally subscribe to it.

Turning now to the second small-huge problem with "science" writing:

2. All the good science is impossibly complex.
But it can be summarized -- and must be -- in order to be truly understood.

This is the heart of what Tom Wolfe was talking about -- the spectacular opportunity to help readers see and understand things for the first time. The great goal of discovery.

Our world is full of extraordinary complexities and nuances, and it is imperative that many of these nuances be understood by people outside narrow corridors of expertise. We should all understand a bit about economics. We should all understand the basic dynamics of global warming. We should all understand how genes help make us who we are.

In order to get there, we need metaphors, analogies, and clear summaries. I know I don't need to lecture a Brown audience about the importance of signs and symbols. So much of what a writer does is to choose, or even invent, an appropriate metaphor to help people relate to something they do not yet understand. That metaphor has to not just be compelling -- but also accurate.

A substantial portion of my new book about talent and intelligence is about how badly we have been misled about genetics by the metaphors that have been used to describe it.

[Reading from Chapter 1 of The Genius in All of Us redacted]


And now onto number three on my list of challenges and solutions.

3. Most "scientists" think that they understand their science better than you.
But the people who stand among the trees rarely have a good sense of the whole forest. 

It took me a long time to grasp this point, which may be the most important thing to understand about "science" writing. On the surface, it seems preposterous that an English-major pipsqueak like me could understand something about Alzheimer's disease that some of the world's great Alzheimer's scientists don't understand. And there's obviously a lot of detail that would take me many years and several advanced degrees to comprehend.

But there is an advantage to not being steeped in detail. There are things that you can see when you're flying overhead at 10,000 feet that you simply cannot see when you're walking on the ground. It's not a matter of being smarter than the experts, but trying to map together a larger terrain in a way that most of them are unable to.

In my experience, this is the scariest and also the most fulfilling thing about being a "science" writer. It's scary because when you have an original thought, you need to have the courage of your convictions to articulate that thought -- and some people won't like that.

It's fulfilling because you can help change the world with your writing. In the process of acting as an ambassador for the public, trying to help your readers discover a new world, it's quite likely that you will come to understand that world in a way that no one -- not even the experts -- ever quite have. With these insights, you can help not only your lay public readers, but also help the very expert-inhabitants of your world discover themselves and their surroundings in a new way.

This is what I mean about making the truth truthful. You can have the best possible grasp of data and still not have much of a sense of what it all means. That's why we need stories and metaphors. That's why we need pipsqueak "science" writers like me -- and you.

Thank you.

Postscript: From the next morning's Brown Daily Herald:



Thanks to Beth Taylor and Larry Stanley at the Brown Nonfiction Writing Program.

Campus Image from 1908, courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.