As an urban dog owner I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s article in the New York Times about the trials and tribulations of having a dog in a city. This op-ed piece is an argument against a plan to eliminate “off leash” hours in city parks. As someone who has many times appreciated the ability to let his dog “off leash” in parks in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, I agree with Foer. I also enjoyed his musings on what it means for us (as in humanity) to have this desire to bring animals into unfriendly environs like cities. Kudos, as well, to Foer for letting his guard down in this piece in a way that many other writers might not have. (via Gwenda)
Collaborating with another writer is something I’ve done only once. It was for a Washington Post Magazine cover article about the stock car racing legend Richard Petty, who was making his first run for political office in the fall of 1978. At the time I was working as a newspaper reporter in Greensboro, N.C., and after work I would drive the 22 miles to Petty’s home with one of the paper’s editorial writers, and we would spend the late afternoons talking with Petty as he drove his customized van along the back roads of Randolph County. Petty was always dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, cowboy boots and wraparound shades as he knocked on doors, flashed his famous thousand-watt smile and urged people to help elect him to the board of county commissioners. Naturally, Petty lapped the field.
When it came time to write the article, my collaborator gave me his notes and disappeared. This delighted me. I was free to sit alone in my room using his notes and my own to write a draft of the article as I thought it should be written. My collaborator then made suggestions, some of which I heeded, most of which I ignored. The article appeared under both of our bylines, with mine before his, an arrangement that struck me as more than a little unfair. We also split the $750 paycheck down the middle, which struck me as enormously unfair. Afterwards I felt like the character Nelson Head in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Artificial Nigger,” a young yokel who survives a harrowing visit to the big city of Atlanta and vows never to return. To paraphrase Nelson, my feelings about collaborating with another writer were I’m glad I did it once, but I’ll never do it again.
My vow has remained intact for more than 30 years, but I recently learned about a group called NeuWrite that has forced me to reconsider my abiding disdain for the art of collaborative writing. The group began to take shape back in 2007 because a Columbia University neuroscience grad student named Carl Schoonover had arrived at a blunt realization. “Lots of interesting neuroscience research gets reported badly,” he says. “And most scientists can’t write for shit, myself included, because they don’t teach you how to write in science grad school. The trick was to find writers.”
So after discussing the idea with his colleagues, Schoonover persuaded Stuart Firestein, the chairman of Columbia’s biology deparment, to introduce him to Ben Marcus, who heads the university’s Master of Fine Arts program in non-fiction writing. Marcus offered the names of half a dozen of his students who might be interested in collaborating with neuroscience grad students, and Schoonover took each of them to The Hungarian Pastry Shop near campus to pitch his idea. In early 2008, the group came together for the first time at an informal salon in the home of Firestein and his wife Diana Reiss, a psychology professor at Hunter College.
“I think you need to develop trust for it work,” Schoonover says. “We scientists are accustomed to collaboration. It’s built into the scientific process. But the writers were very reticent, especially at first.”
As the members became more familiar and comfortable with each other, scientists started pairing up with writers and working together. Eventually the salon atmosphere of the meetings gave way to a classic MFA workshop format – members would bring in a piece of their own writing for the group to discuss; established science writers would be invited to speak; the group would read and discuss examples of high quality science writing.
Schoonover wound up pairing with Abigail Rabinowitz, 32, who has since gotten her MFA and gone to India on a Fulbright grant to study surrogate motherhood in Mumbai. Rabinowitz had wanted to be a scientist when she was growing up, and the announcement that NeuWrite was forming in early 2008 caught her eye. “I wanted to find my way back to science through writing,” she says, “and I thought this would be a great way to look at writing from a different perspective and possibly find new stories.”
Schoonover and Rabinowitz’s first collaboration was on an article for Science magazine about a show at the American Museum of Natural History called “Brain: The Inside Story”. “First, we heard the museum’s directors speak about how they’d planned the show,” Rabinowitz recalls. “Then Carl and I walked through the show together and shared impressions. If I wasn’t sure about something, he explained it to me. Our impressions were very similar, even though we were coming from different backgrounds. We both felt the show wasn’t organized visually as well as it could have been.”
Next came the hard part. “So we sat down together with a computer,” Rabinowitz continues. “We both had a lot of notes, and we outlined the piece together. I had a vision for the introduction when you walk into a kind of spaghetti forest that represents the brain. Carl also thought it was a good way into the piece. Then we moved through the show, and that became the article’s structure. I typed while we were both speaking – not trying to hone language, just trying to get basic ideas in order. Then I wrote the first draft until the halfway point and e-mailed the draft to Carl, who then edited what I’d written – not structure, but word choice and one factual error and some added information. Then he wrote the second half. He sent it back to me and I edited what he’d written. We both killed the other’s darlings.”
More and more refined drafts went back and forth a half dozen times. Changes were tracked on each draft, and the collaborators spoke frequently by phone. The finished product possesses two things you don’t always find in science writing: accurate, easily comprehensible information related in a style that’s brisk and clear.
The pair’s next collaboration was an article for the New York Times about the emerging field of optogenetics, which uses flashes of light to control electrical activity in specially engineered neurons. The technique is beginning to yield insight into such human disorders as Parkinson’s disease and anxiety.
Rabinowitz now feels that collaboration, though painful, is worth the trouble. “Ultimately I think it produced better writing than I could have done myself,” she says. “Carl knows what he’s talking about. If he liked something I wrote, I got the joy of recognition. But it can be frustrating too. I wouldn’t want to write this way with most people I know, because it’s hard and there has to be a good reason to do it. If you’re writing with somebody else, you need to communicate very well.”
For Greg Wayne, a grad student in theoretical neuroscience and a member of NeuWrite, this hasn’t been his first exposure to collaborative writing. Wayne and his brother, a novelist, had worked together on humor sketches, a form that’s “incredibly amenable” to collaboration, he says. “With humor, there’s a joke every line, and that can be edited immediately. Is this funny? Does that work? But if you have long, discursive writing, sitting at the same keyboard is much more difficult. I think novel writing would be just about impossible.”
Wayne collaborated with the writer Alex Pasternack on an article for Science magazine about a panel on artificial intelligence at the World Science Festival – replete with robot demonstrations, including Watson, the “Jeopardy!” champion. The experience left Wayne convinced that there are times when two minds can produce better science writing than one. “For the article we divided up responsibility based on what we know best,” Wayne says. “Alex, as a writer, was going to look at social issues, how the public views artificial intelligence, how people think about a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi movie. As a scientist I would focus on the nuts and bolts of how the robots work. In the end, neither one of us alone would have been capable of writing what we wrote together.”
Tim Requarth studied Spanish literature as an undergrad and wrote a book about his father’s dementia before entering Columbia’s neuroscience program. Requarth, who recently wrote a review here at The Millions of the neuroscientist David Eagleman’s best-seller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, teamed up with Schoonover to help run NeuWrite. “I was a logical person to step in because I’ve had a foot in both words – science and writing,” says Requarth, who has collaborated on articles for Science and Scientific American with Meehan Crist, who has just finished writing a book called Everything After, about traumatic brain injury. “One thing we’ve all discovered is that it works better if one person writes the first draft. Meehan and I discuss the ideas and arrive at a sketch, details to include, how to start. Then I sit down and write. Then Meehan does a first-pass edit, and we pass it back and forth until we’re both happy with it. When someone reads your rough draft, it’s like letting them see you half-dressed. It’s about arriving at a level of intellectual comfort – or having faith in the process. In a successful collaboration, both people feel like they did less than half the work.”
Requarth is now working to start a second NeuWrite group that will branch beyond the neuroscience field and beyond the Columbia campus. He’s recruiting students from other science disciplines at NYU and CUNY, as well as journalists. Another group is beginning to form in Boston.
Schoonover is optimistic that the group’s tenets will spread. “We’re trying to make the argument to science editors that the best way to guarantee accuracy and avoid hype is by having a scientist involved in every step of the crafting of articles,” he says. “Once we show that this collaboration between writers and scientists works with NeuWrite, we’d love to see it become routine. We’re sowing the seeds for expansion.”
(Image: Christmas DNA from pagedooley’s photostream)
Today’s Elliot Spitzer scandal sent me back to the New Yorker archives, to revisit Nick Paumgarten’s excellent profile, from December 10. This time around, I was struck less by the “what you see is what you get” thesis of some Spitzer intimates, than by this proposition, from an unnamed source: “Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around.” It remains to be seen if, amid the thrashing, his newfound talent for “extracting oneself from an intractable position” holds up.
Amazon has locked down a rare piece of Harry Potter ephemera far a tidy sum.We’re incredibly excited to announce that Amazon has purchased J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard at an auction held by Sotheby’s in London. The book of five wizarding fairy tales, referenced in the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is one of only seven handmade copies in existence. The purchase price was £1,950,000 [$3.93 million], and Ms. Rowling is donating the proceeds to The Children’s Voice campaign, a charity she co-founded to help improve the lives of institutionalized children across Europe.The Tales of Beedle the Bard is extensively illustrated and handwritten by the bard herself–all 157 pages of it. It’s bound in brown Moroccan leather and embellished with five hand-chased hallmarked sterling silver ornaments and mounted moonstones.Since this is a particularly difficult volume to get one’s hands on, and since there are likely many curious Potter fans out there, Amazon has offered up a special review of the book, along with images from its pages. (Thanks, Laurie)Update: Yes, it turns out this happened in December. So: old news, but new to me, and perhaps to you too.
In the spring, we reported on an unusual event unfolding in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail. Each week, through 2008, someone – typically a published author or an academic – would write an essay for the Globe championing a book. Fifty books in total. They were not ranked in any order, and in reality they form a jumping-off point into a world of knowledge and literary imagination.About a third of the books championed were novels, from such usual suspects as War and Peace, Don Quixote, and Middlemarch, through Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and One Hundred Years of Solitude.More interesting were the non-novels on the list. There were collected shorts from Borges, Kafka and Chekhov, and collected poems from Eliot and Yeats. There was Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Decameron, and The Mahabharata, a 2000-year-old verse from India. Lady Murasaki’s 1000-year-old The Tale of Genji pops up. Plays by Becket and Goethe were also championed.The King James Bible is there; as is the Koran. Books of philosophy by Plato and political economy by both Adam Smith and Karl Marx made the list.Darwin’s Origin of Species is there; so is Diderot’s Encyclopedia, Herodotus’ Histories, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Rachel Carson’s proto-environmental Silent Spring. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her 300-year-old rebel yell, is there, as are St. Augustine’s Confessions, and de Montaigne’s Essays, his 16th-century invention of a genre.Beside each essay are links to all the essays that came before it. So you should go to the 50th essay, championing Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, to get easy links to the other 49. Thank goodness for that, because there doesn’t seem to be a central web page listing all 50, and I advise against trying to search through the Globe and Mail’s Books section archives unless you want to get a blinding headache.
They eat babies in Guangzhou. This appalling side note appeared in this week’s issue of Newsweek International in an article about problems with Chinese food safety. The article profiles Chinese journalist Zhou Qing who was nominated as a finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award for his work covering food safety issues. According to Zhou, Chinese captains of industry blithely pickle vegetables with agricultural strength insecticides to keep flies away and sprinkle preserved fish with “sulphur salt,” an industrial additive deadly in amounts as small as three grams.None of this is very surprising, after a recent shipment of poisoned Chinese toothpaste and cough syrup caused a spate of deaths in Central and South America. What is surprising, however, is the inspiration for Zhou’s book: an unusual dish he claims was served to him in a Guangdong restaurant. From the Newsweek article:[The soup was] placenta soup… The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government’s one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses.While this tidbit doesn’t seem to have earned even a blink from the jaded staff at Newsweek, I practically spit my morning coffee across the monitor.Could this really be the one child policy in action? Or is it a hoax perpetuated by an overzealous reporter? Poisoning cough syrup is one thing, but eating babies? Although stories of women eating their own placentas abound, the issues raised by the potential commodification of the placenta are profoundly troubling. China’s moral compass must be spinning like a dervish.A cynicism well honed on long exposure to fabulist reportage on Asia, immediately took me to Snopes.com, the vaunted debunker of rumors and urban legend. The Snopes team decries a similar story as nothing more than racist claptrap. But a quick trip to Google uncovers a wealth of articles, including one from Bloomberg in the International Herald Tribune (which introduces a new wrinkle… the placentas are imported from Japan) and one from the Daiyuan Times… in Chinese. Who to believe?The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before. There are few crimes more transgressive and titillating than cannibalism, and people with an axe to grind are often quick to call their enemies out as baby eaters. A quick background check on the Daiyuan Times, for example, shows that it is owned by the Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization that has experienced ruthless oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. If you can’t trust the food from China, how can you trust the journalism?Not that the United States is much better. Even putting aside purebred fictionalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, we’re still left with a herd of reporters so eager for a good story, they’re unwilling to get to the bottom of it. With old hands like Judith Miller selling entire wars based completely on rumor and innuendo, it’s hard to find fault with an ambitious tyro for practicing his chops on a bowl of fetus soup.So do they eat babies in China? Newsweek, at least, is sticking with Zhou’s account. His book, What Kind of God?, is currently only available in Chinese, but the general hysteria building up around Chinese exports seems to be making room for a bestseller. Eat your heart out Upton Sinclair.See Also: The Lettre Ulysses goes on hiatus
Michael Lewis turns in yet another tremendous piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair. This one is about the catastrophic financial collapse in Iceland:Walking into the P.M.’s minute headquarters, I expect to be stopped and searched, or at least asked for photo identification. Instead I find a single policeman sitting behind a reception desk, feet up on the table, reading a newspaper. He glances up, bored. “I’m here to see the prime minister,” I say for the first time in my life. He’s unimpressed. Anyone here can see the prime minister. Half a dozen people will tell me that one of the reasons Icelanders thought they would be taken seriously as global financiers is that all Icelanders feel important. One reason they all feel important is that they all can go see the prime minister anytime they like. For those following along at home, we’ve also noted Lewis’ two takes on the Wall Street collapse and his more recent piece on the NBA.