Feeling Stuck? Good Ideas Hide in Plain Sight, Says Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer
Author Jonathan Safran Foer on the two surprising qualities successful writers need.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestselling novels Everything Is Illuminated, named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Here I Am, and a book of non-fiction, Eating Animals. Foer was one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire's "Best and Brightest." Foer was also included in The New Yorker magazine's "20 Under 40" list of writers. Foer attended Princeton University in New Jersey, where he studied Philosophy. It was while at Princeton that Foer was able to take an introductory writing course under the tutelage of novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Oates noted Foer's talent at an early stage, informing him that he had "that most important of writerly qualities, energy." Of Oates, Foer later said:
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestselling novels Everything Is Illuminated, named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the winner of numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Here I Am, and a book of non-fiction, Eating Animals. Foer was one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year" and Esquire's "Best and Brightest." Foer was also included in The New Yorker magazine's "20 Under 40" list of writers.
Foer attended Princeton University in New Jersey, where he studied Philosophy. It was while at Princeton that Foer was able to take an introductory writing course under the tutelage of novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Oates noted Foer's talent at an early stage, informing him that he had "that most important of writerly qualities, energy." Of Oates, Foer later said:"She was the first person to ever make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way. And my life really changed after that."
Jonathan Safran Foer: I think very often when people refer to being stuck, or this is certainly my own experience and I've talked about it enough with friends, some of whom are writers, some of whom are other kinds of artists, some of them do other things with your life, often times when people refer to being stuck they don't mean like creatively blocked, they don't mean that they don't have any good ideas, they mean that they don't have any ideas that they care about; that nothing they're making feels important to them. When you don't care about something you just don't do a good job with it. Maybe you can for a while. It's possible to fake it for a bit or it's possible to have incentives to do things like I have a deadline or my boss is going to be looking over my shoulder if I don't, but for most of us we do our best work when we care about it.
So when I teach if a student will say something to me like I really love this but I know it's not going to be a good book or I actually have a friend who also teaches who was telling me about an experience he had were a student came up to him and said, "I wrote all these notes for this book I want to write but I find that I never write the book, I just really love working on the notes for the book." And my friend's advice was, "Well, probably the notes are your book. If that's what you love and that's what you're drawn to and you're imagination wants to go there then just let it go there. The worst that can happen is it's a book that will be for nobody but you, but that is actually a much better fate than writing a book that lots of people like that isn't for you." So when something draws my attention, when something feels important or even just pleasurable to me, I work on it even if it's off the track, even if I'm already 60 percent of the way into what I thought was the book I was going to write if I suddenly find that one of the little voices in it is appealing to me more than it ought to, this person I thought was a side character suddenly like elbowing into the middle of the room and just wants to stay there and wants to be the center of attention, I will make that character the center of attention despite it being a very efficient way to work because I know that I have become unsuccessful, I've become stuck, I've become unhappy when I'm working on something that I know isn't really what I care about.
The most successful students I've had, the ones who have published books are the ones who have actually had to change midway through long projects. Students who came to class with 300 pages and we had a discussion not about how those 300 pages could be the best form of themselves but rather why are you writing these 300 pages? Are these the 300 pages that best express the thing that makes you a singular writer? You are a writer in this way. Here's the thing about you that is different than other people. Here are the things about your experience or your voice or your imagination your fluency, whatever it is. I think each writer has something that makes him or her singular and I try to guide of the feedback toward like repeated examinations of the question what makes you singular not how can I make this sentence as good as it could possibly be.
With the case of these very successful students we had difficult classes where the answer was maybe it's not. Maybe there's something else that will better express your singular quality. And sometimes those are very, very difficult classes because it can feel one can get sort of swept up in the what is lost like in the moment. Like I've been working for six months on this, I've been working for nine months on this sort of forgetting that one need only write one really good book to have an amazing career as a writer. How many writers have written two great books? Not very many. Three great books you'd be hard pressed to name more than a couple so there's plenty of time.
One disadvantage of a writing program is that it creates this kind of like pre-professional attitude. Like you go to a writing program so that you can get an agent, so that you can get a publisher, so you can be a published writer so da, da, da, da, da, da as if there's this long string of cause and effects that you want to be on as quickly as possible. As opposed to like this extremely long process, which is going to be inefficient and arduous and challenging in any number of ways, but that the goal at the end is not to make any one piece of writing as good as it can be but to make yourself the writer who doesn't stop.
Here are two things you never thought a writer would need – agility and stamina. American author Jonathan Safran Foer (the literary talent behind works such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything Is Illuminated, Eating Animals) knows writing and therefore he knows writer’s block. The feeling of being stuck can strike in any creative field. Safran Foer points out that often it feels like it’s because of a lack of ideas, but that's a red herring. You do have ideas, you just don’t care enough about them enough. Nothing you’re making feels important to you. You think ‘Who would want to read this?’ or ‘This will never sell.’
But Safran Foer urges writers to stop thinking about the publishing process so much. It's face-palming, obvious advice but sometimes we need to be told: focus on the actual writing. If there’s something you care about, write it. "The worst that can happen is it's a book that will be for nobody but you, but that is actually a much better fate than writing a book that lots of people like that isn't for you." Writers have written about such nuanced, strange, unassuming things that millions of people have found a way into and loved intensely. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief? Who cares about flowers, right? Well, she made orchids seem like the most fascinating thing on the planet. Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp is about nothing more than whale excrement. And it's brilliant. Enthusiasm is contagious – we all know and have felt that.
Safran Foer’s advice is that if something feels important or just fun, even if it’s a deviation from your plans, follow it. If a background character elbows their way to the foreground, let it. You have a new protagonist now. Be agile in your practice. Even if you’re 60 percent into a project, if the voice of a new idea or pathway can’t be silenced, then you should probably follow it. When you work on something you don’t care enough about, stuck on a set course to finish it, it can make you incredibly unhappy, he says.
Find what makes you singular as a writer. Find what is unique about you that no other writer could offer – a story, a character, a voice, a style, a form. According to Safran Foer, the way to become a successful writer isn’t to agonize over one idea for the perfect book, but to write constantly, even if no one will ever see it. Cultivate stamina. Hang onto the comet tail of good ideas, even if it means abandoning a previous idea. And always be ready to latch onto the next comet. Be the writer who doesn’t stop.
Jonathan Safran Foer's latest novel is Here I Am.
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.
- Scientists have long been puzzled by how specific chains of amino acids go on to form three-dimensional proteins.
- DeepMind developed a system that's able to predict "protein folding" in a fraction of the time of human experiments, and with unprecedented accuracy.
- The achievement could greatly improve drug research and development, as well as bioengineering pursuits.
Credit: DeepMind<p>In the biennial competition, teams analyze around 100 proteins with the goal of predicting their eventual 3D shape. A protein's shape determines its function. For example, a protein can become an antibody that binds to foreign particles to protect, an enzyme that carries out chemical reactions, or a structural component that supports cells.</p><p>Proteins start as a string of hundreds of amino acids. Within a protein, pairs of amino acids can interact in numerous ways, and these particular interactions determine the final shape of the protein. But given the sheer number of possible interactions, it's incredibly difficult to predict a protein's physical shape. Difficult, but not impossible.</p><p>Since CASP began, scientists have been able to predict the shape of some simple proteins with reasonable accuracy. CASP is able to verify the accuracy of these predictions by comparing them to the actual shape of proteins, which it obtains through the unpublished results of lab experiments.</p><p>But these experiments are difficult, often taking months or years of hard work. The shapes of some proteins have eluded scientists for decades. As such, it's hard to overstate the value of having an AI that's able to churn out this work in just hours, or even minutes.</p><p>In 2018, DeepMind, which was acquired by Google in 2014, startled the scientific community when its AlphaFold algorithm won the CASP13 contest. AlphaFold was able to predict protein shapes by "training" itself on vast amounts of data on known amino acid strings and their corresponding protein shapes.</p><p>In other words, AlphaFold learned that particular amino acid configurations—say, distances between pairs, angles between chemical bonds—signaled that the protein would likely take a particular shape. AlphaFold then used these insights to predict the shapes of unmapped proteins. AlphaFold's performance in the 2018 contest was impressive, but not reliable enough to consider the problem of "protein folding" solved.</p>
Credit: DeepMind<p>In the latest contest, DeepMind used an updated version of AlphaFold. It combines the previous deep-learning strategy with a new "attention algorithm" that accounts for physical and geometric factors. Here's how <a href="https://deepmind.com/blog/article/alphafold-a-solution-to-a-50-year-old-grand-challenge-in-biology" target="_blank">DeepMind describes it:</a></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A folded protein can be thought of as a 'spatial graph,' where residues are the nodes and edges connect the residues in close proximity. This graph is important for understanding the physical interactions within proteins, as well as their evolutionary history."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For the latest version of AlphaFold, used at CASP14, we created an attention-based neural network system, trained end-to-end, that attempts to interpret the structure of this graph, while reasoning over the implicit graph that it's building. It uses evolutionarily related sequences, multiple sequence alignment (MSA), and a representation of amino acid residue pairs to refine this graph."</p><p>CASP measures prediction accuracy through the "Global Distance Test (GDT)", which ranges from 0-100. The new version of AlphaFold scored a median of 92.4 GDT for all targets.</p>