Andrew Sean Greer: Where to Write

Question: Is it easier to write in New York or San Francisco?

Andrew Sean Greer:  That’s hard.  I was so young when I was in New York.  I certainly wrote a lot.  But last time I was here I found it really distracting.  It was hard to stay indoors because I wanted to be out all the time.  I think the most important thing is to just get a ritual down wherever you are.

Question: What is your writing process?

Andrew Sean Greer:  The process.  Well, there’s two parts to it.  There’s the long-term process of a novel and then there’s the daily stuff.  You know, it’s like planning for a marathon.  You set up your training schedule, you know, you have your idea and I plot it out, I make a huge outline of it and then I work every day about 9:00 to 2:00 or 3:00.  I have to get three pages done every day and there’s usually a point about 150 pages in where everything falls apart, where all the plans are for naught.  The book has become something else and I have a nervous breakdown and then I submit to what the book has become and I keep going and that’s a terrible and then a great time.  No one likes to be around me during that.

Question:  What is your advice to young writers?

Andrew Sean Greer:  It’s so hard to know what to tell people.  I mean, I really think it’s just what everyone says, it’s a willpower kind of a game because the weirdest part in graduate school was that the most talented writers were not the ones that became writers, it was dogged ones and that’s actually talent too, I guess.  Is just being willing to go every day and stay there until the pages appear every day.  I tell this to my students too.  I’m, like, I know you can write a short story overnight, but that’s not the job.  It’s not a long-term skill.  You need to write a short story over a month, every month, and I think that’s it.

Question: Was graduate school the right decision?

Andrew Sean Greer:  It was.  I don’t think it’s the right decision for everyone.  You know, I was coming from New York, I couldn’t afford anything.  I was having a hard time figuring how to be a writer here and going to Montana was a very attractive, completely different plan and it worked out great for me, but I’m not sure it helped my writing, you know.  Because you have a committee of people who are also young like you and don’t really know how to do it well either, so it’s a funny committee to be submitting your work to.  You have to really know, be confident in what you’re doing because I wasn’t writing like anyone else there and that was hard for me to figure out and it’s destructive to a novel for sure because you meet every week with part of a novel.  Really what
you should tell a novelist is keep going until you finish the draft.  Don’t show it to anyone.

Question: Do trees enable writing?


Andrew Sean Greer:  Oh, in Montana?  Yeah, it was great, but then also, it was pretty cold, dark winters.  I guess that helps novel writing too historically, but it also helps drinking, you know, at those times, but maybe that helps a novel too.  But I love it.  I go every year and stay for a long time.  I love going to writers’ colonies in pastoral settings where there’s nothing to do, but either walk around or read a book or work on your book and they all seem helpful.

Question: What’s your favorite writers colony?

Andrew Sean Greer:  In New Hampshire, the McDowell colony.  I’m going there in a month.  Yeah, can’t wait. Because you work all day and produce so much work and it doesn’t feel like work.  It just feels like when you start out writing and you just want to write all the time and you’re just so excited about everything you’re doing.  It feels like that again and it’s hard to recreate because a lot of times it feels like a job like you’re building something really huge.

Greer describes his process, and the joys of a writer's colony

7 fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.

Photo by Raunaq Patel on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
  • Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
  • These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less