Our Building Blocks

We humans are such complicated creatures. There are so many pieces to who we are. We begin with our foundation—the presumptions, tastes, gifts and limitations upon which we assemble our lives—and then we build. Piece by piece, everything important is brought to the structure, a keystone dropped into place to hold it all together. Sometimes […]

Probabilities and the Written Word

I had occasion, one parents’ weekend, to attend a college math class. The room was filled with rows of computer banks where bright-eyed students sat, in varying states of posture, but all paying attention. White boards were on opposite walls of the classroom, front to back. The professor—a lively young man—moved the discussion along at […]

The Hallmarks of an Engaging Letter

Yes, I know. No one writes letters anymore. We write e-mails. Or blogs, commentary, essays, stories, books . . . Right there, it goes to show: a letter will be noticed. The lure begins with its very physicality: a nice weight to the paper, a promising feel in the hand. It separates easily from the […]

The Little Man

All day long, people talk. Sometimes we hear helpful things, and we are grateful. But sometimes—stage left: enter the little man, a not so helpful guy. That shifty little bugger, never invited, sits on one’s shoulder, burrows in, makes himself at home, and doles out unsolicited advice. Smoking a cigar, pontificating, he suggests maybe that […]

Trash and the Written Word

It’s probably good to have a moment when everything turns inside out on a project, when you have to start over. I didn’t say fun—I said good. Before I went nearly paperless, I trashed forests-full of material. One project in particular comes to mind: a novel. I had written lots of successful things before this—books, […]

Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream

There is a certain amount of wisdom in this life that filters in from the strangest, least anticipated directions, and even more surprising, ends up informing one’s work. I have come by three writing principles this way, through tributaries that emanated from a single wellspring, a man I met in pre-Tiananmen Beijing: Mr. C. C. […]

What a Reader Really Wants

There you are, perusing the new fiction in the bookstore, the noise from the café filtering into your consciousness, heard as if from within the womb. What causes you to pluck a volume off the shelf for a closer look? Maybe it has an engaging title or a great cover. You flip it over, feel […]

It’s All in the Delivery

Words are shifty things. One minute they mean this. The next, they mean that. Perhaps this is what makes them so hard to pin down. Here are two versions of exactly the same words, with two entirely different meanings. Watch: http://adland.tv/commercials/recrear-truth-2006-220-argentina Pretty clever, and I didn’t see it coming. Made me stop to realize yet […]

Not Exactly Solitary

So much of a writer’s day is spent with his thoughts, the place from which he is charged to be fruitful. That’s a tall order, and so he sits down and works. And there he is a week or a month or decades later—still at it. Yet, with all this solitary behavior, the writer who […]

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