Staring Down the Challenges of Writing

Question: What did you aim to achieve with your new book that you'd never achieved before?

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Paul Auster: It's a difficult question. As you say, each book is a new book. I've never written it before and I feel that I have to teach myself to do it as I'm doing it. This book evolves in a very organic way. I wasn't sure about where I wanted to go, what I thought was going to happen. I had the beginning in my head, but then as I began writing, more ideas came to me about how to continue the book. I think it's the first time structurally that I've ever had more than one narrator in the book, there are actually three in this one. But what I hope to accomplish? I don't know. It's for you to tell me, I really don't know. You get grabbed by the story, the characters, the language that you want to embody somehow on the page, and then the rest is done in a kind of trance, and so it's hard for me to say what I want to happen. Just something important for the reader, something memorable, I suppose. In the same way it was memorable to me to write it.

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Question: Which of your books has been the most challenging? 

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Paul Auster: The most challenging project I've ever done, I think, is every single thing I've ever tried to do. It's never easy. Some things get written more quickly than others, but I can't really measure degrees of difficulty. I think probably I struggled most, had the most difficulty completing things, writing something to my friends, especially when I was young, I was starting out. And then there would be many false starts, many abject failures that depressed me to no end. And as the years went on, I became a little more comfortable with the prospect of failure as part of the routine of writing, the whole business of it.

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What changed for me over the years, I think is this, early on, when I was writing a novel and I got stuck, and every writer gets stuck at certain points, I would go into a kind of panic, thinking the project is over, I don't know what to do with it, and go through some very tormented times. Now, in my old age, when I come to these moments, I say to myself, "If this book needs to be written, if it's something valuable, if it has the power that I think it might, then I'm going to figure it out, and all I have to do is be patient." So sometimes it's a matter of taking a couple of days off, sometimes a month off, which happened with this new book, “Invisible,” I took about six weeks off, just to meditate on what I wanted to do with it. And then lo and behold, you're rolling again. And I don't know this happens, but I think it's so much a matter of the unconscious telling you what to put on the page. And if you're listening and relaxed enough to be able to listen, it will happen.

Recorded on November 5, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

For "Invisible" author Paul Auster, writing novels never gets easier, yet he no longer dreads the blank page.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

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  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.