Behold Octavia Butler’s Motivational Notes to Self

Handwritten notes on the inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, 1988

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining. —Octavia E. Butler

Like many authors, the late Octavia E. Butler took up writing at a young age.

At 11, she was churning out tales about horses and romance.

At 12, she saw Devil Girl from Mars, and figured (correctly) she could tell a better story than that, using 2 fingers to peck out stories on the Remington typewriter her mother bought at her request.

At 13, she found a copy of The Writer magazine abandoned on a bus seat, and learned that it was possible to submit her work for publication.

After a decade’s worth of rejection slips, she sold her first two stories, thanks in part to her association with the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshop, which she became involved with on the recommendation of her mentor, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.




She went on to become the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur “genius” award, garnering multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her work.

An asteroid is named after her, as is a mountain on Pluto’s moon.

Hailed as the Mother of Afro Futurism, she won the PEN American Center lifetime achievement award in writing.

But professional success never clouded her view of herself as the 10-year-old writer who was unsure if library-loving black kids like her would be allowed inside a bookstore.

Identifying as a writer helped her move beyond her crippling shyness and dyslexia. As she wrote in an autobiographical essay, "Positive Obsession":

I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I grew to be six feet tall. Boys in particular seemed to assume that I had done this growing deliberately and that I should be ridiculed for it as often as possible.

I hid out in a big pink notebook—one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself a universe in it. There I could be a magic horse, a Martian, a telepath….There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.

She developed a lifelong habit of cheering herself on with motivational notes, writing them in her journals, on lined notebook paper, in day planners and on repurposed pages of an old wall calendar.

She held herself accountable by writing out demanding schedules to accompany her lofty, documented goals.

And though she wearied of the constant invitations to serve on literary panels devoted to science fiction writers of color, at which she’d be asked the same questions she’d answered dozens of times before, she was resolute about providing opportunities for young black writers … and readers, who found reflections of themselves in her characters. As she remarked in an interview with The New York Times

When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.

Her brand of science fictiona label she often tried to duck, identifying herself on her business card simply as “writer”serves as a lens for considering contemporary issues: sexual violence, gun violence, climate change, gender stereotypes, the problems of late-stage capitalism, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and, not least, racism.

She sidestepped utopian science fiction, believing that imperfect humans are incapable of  forming a perfect society. “Nobody is perfect," she told Vibe:

One of the things I've discovered even with teachers using my books is that people tend to look for 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' which always annoys the hell out of me. I'd be bored to death writing that way. But because that's the only pattern they have, they try to fit my work into it.

Learn more about the life and work of Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) here.

I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not.

This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months . Each of my novels does this.

So be it! I will find the way to do this. See to it! So be it! See to it!

My books will be read by millions of people!

I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood

I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops

I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons

I will help poor black youngsters go to college

I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself

I will hire a car whenever I want or need to.

I will travel whenever and wherever in the world that I choose

My books will be read by millions of people!

So be it! See to it!

via Austin Kleon

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Watch a 5-Part Animated Primer on Afrofuturism, the Black Sci-Fi Phenomenon Inspired by Sun Ra

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

Martin Amis Explains His Method for Writing Great Sentences

Why does Martin Amis writes sentences well? As a novelist, he naturally has a high degree of professional interest in the matter. But why does he write sentences so well? One might put forth the influence of his father Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim, an enduring contender for the title of the funniest novel in the English language. But given how seldom one acclaimed novelist sires another — an event, in fact, nearly unheard of — the heritability of literary talent remains unknowable. As for the direct influence of Amis père on Amis fils, we can almost entirely rule it out: not only did Kingsley never encourage Martin to follow in his footsteps, only once did he offer any kind of writerly advice.

"We sat in high-bourgeois splendor, my father and I," writes the younger Amis in his memoir Experience, "having a pre-lunch drink and talking about his first published story, ‘The Sacred Rhino of Uganda’ (1932: he was ten)." The father-son dialogue runs as follows:

— It was awful in all the usual ways. And full of false quantities. Things like: ‘Raging and cursing in the blazing heat …’

— What’s wrong with that? I mean I can see it’s old fashioned …

— You can’t have three ings like that.

— Can’t you?

— No. It would have to be: ‘Raging and cursing in the … intolerable heat.’

You couldn’t have three ings like that. And sometimes you couldn’t even have two. The same went for -ics, -ives, -lys and -tions. And the same went for all prefixes too.

43 years later, Martin Amis would find himself in the role of literary advice-giver, delivering his father's principle of writing onstage at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The process of imbuing every sentence with "minimum elegance and euphony," he says in the clip above (drawn from a longer interview viewable here) involves "saying the sentence, subvocalizing it in your head until there's nothing wrong with it. This means not repeating in the same sentence suffixes and prefix. If you've got a confound, you can't have a conform. If you've got invitation, you can't have execution. You can't repeat those, or an -ing, or a -ness: all that has to be one per sentence. I think the prose will give a sort of pleasure without you being able to tell why."

Clearly writing a sentence that has "nothing wrong with it" goes well beyond adhering to the rules of spelling and grammar. And even after you've eliminated all ungainly repetition, you may still have considerable work to do before the sentence rises to a standard worth upholding. There are other questions to ask: do you, for example, truly possess each and every one of the words you've used, not just in meaning but sound and rhythm? In order to do so, Amis recommends acquainting yourself more intimately with the dictionary and thesaurus. If all this makes the task of the aspiring writer sound needlessly daunting, follow instead the much simpler advice Amis provides in the clip just above: "Get to the end of the novel, then worry, because you've got something in front of you that you can work on. Save the anxiety for the end."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Write Only 500 Words Per Day and Publish 50+ Books: Graham Greene’s Writing Method

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Nobody can write a book. That is, nobody can write a book at a stroke — unless aided by aggressively mind-invigorating substances, and even then they seldom pull it off. As professional writers know all too well, composing just one passable chapter at a sitting demands a Stakhanovite fortitude (or more commonly, a threateningly close deadline). Books are written less one chapter at a time than one section at a time, less one section at a time than one paragraph at a time, less one paragraph at a time than one sentence at a time, and less one sentence at a time than one word at a time. Graham Greene wrote his formidable body of work, more than 50 books, including novels, poetry and short fiction collections, memoirs, and children's stories, 500 words at a time.

In one of his most beloved novels, 1951's The End of the Affair, Greene has his writer protagonist Maurice Bendrix describe a working method much like his own:

Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript. No printer need make a careful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the figure — 83,764.

In his youth, Bendrix notes, "not even a love affair would alter my schedule," nor could one interrupt the nightly phase of his process: "However late I might be in getting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it."




Much of a novelist's writing, he believes, "takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them." Greene, too, set enough store by the unconscious to keep a dream journal. A few year after The End of the Affair, writesThe New Yorker's Maria Konnikova, "he faced a creative 'blockage,' as he called it, that prevented him from seeing the development of a story or even, at times, its start. The dream journal proved to be his savior."

All of us who write, whatever we write, can learn from Greene's methods; Michael Korda got to witness them first-hand. In the summer of 1950 he was invited by his uncle, the film producer Alexander Korda, to come along on a French-Riviera cruise with a variety of major industry figures, Greene included. By that point Greene had already written a fair few screenplays, including adaptations of his own novels Brighton Rock and The Third Man. But each morning on the yacht he worked on a more personal project, as the sixteen-year-old Korda watched:

An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, "That's it, then. Shall we have breakfast?" I did not, of course, know that he was completing The End of the Affair.

This working ritual, a Korda describes it, suits the sensibilities of the writer, a convert to Catholicism who dealt with themes of religious practice in his work:

Greene's self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute. Whatever else was going on, his daily writing, like a religious devotion, was sacred and complete. Once the daily penance of five hundred words was achieved, he put the notebook away and didn't think about it again until the next morning.

Just as Greene's adherence to Catholicism lost some of its rigor in his later years (he claimed to have been converted by arguments, then forgotten the arguments), his daily word count decreased. "In the old days, at the beginning of a book, I'd set myself 500 words a day, but now I'd put the mark to about 300 words," a 66-year-old Greene told the New York Times in 1971. But such are the wages of the novelist's art, in which Greene felt a demand to "know — even if I'm not writing it — where my character's sitting, what his movements are. It's this focusing, even though it's not focusing on the page, that strains my eyes, as though I were watching something too close."

Greene wasn't alone in writing a certain number of words each day. According to a post at Word Counter, Ernest Hemingway got started on his own 500 daily words at first light. Ian McEwan says he aims "for about six hundred words a day and hope for at least a thousand when I’m on a roll." For the more prolific J.G. Ballard, a thousand was the minimum, "even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way." The near-inhumanly prolific Stephen King doubles that: "I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words," he says in his memoir On Writing. "On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon."

John Updike, no slouch when it came to productivity, recommended writing for a length of time rather than to a number of words. "Even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say — or more — a day to write," he says in an interview clip previously featured here on Open Culture. "Some very good things have been written on an hour a day." At The Guardian, novelist Neil Griffiths discusses his apostasy from the thousand-words-a-day method: "I'm writing a novel — an artistic enterprise, one hopes — but I was measuring my working day by a number." Switching to the "finish the bit you're working on" method, he writes, means he doesn't have "half an eye on what is going to happen in the next bit because without it I'll never make the day's 1000. My sole concern is the words before me, however many or few they are, and getting them right before moving on." And so, it seems, those of us trying to get our life's work written have two options: do what Graham Greene did, or do the opposite.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Cork-Lined Bedroom & Writing Room of Marcel Proust, the Original Master of Social Distancing

Many of us now find ourselves stuck at home, doing our part to put a stop to the global coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are taking the opportunity to write the ambitious works of literature we've long intended to. Such an effort of creativity in confinement has no more suitable precedent than the life of Marcel Proust, who wrote much of his seven-volume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) in bed. The Paris Review's Sadie Stein quotes Proust's biographer Diana Fuss describing him as having written "from a semi-recumbent position, suspended midway between the realms of sleeping and waking using his knees as a desk."

He did it in a bedroom lined with cork, an addition meant, Stein writes, "not just to soundproof but to prevent pollen and dust from aggravating Proust’s allergies and asthma." Though the Spanish flu did make its way into France during Proust's last years, the writer had been worried about his own frail health since his first asthma attack at the age of nine.




He got the idea of lining his bedroom with cork from his friend Anna de Noailles, "a princess and socialite, a patron of the arts and a novelist in her own right," who also happened to be "plagued with debilitating fears and neuroses." You can visit faithful reconstructions of both of their bedrooms at Paris Musée Carnavalet, an essential stop on any Proust pilgrimage. So is the Hôtel Ritz Paris, which maintains a "Marcel Proust suite."

William Friedkin — yes, that William Friedkin — stayed in the Marcel Proust suite, "formerly a private dining room on the hotel’s second floor, where Proust often hosted small dinner parties," on the Proust pilgrimage he recalls in The New York Times. "I was told by the hotel manager that the room was reserved for Proust to entertain whenever he could venture out from his cork-lined bedroom at 102 Boulevard Haussmann." No doubt Proust "absorbed inspiration from conversations here, ones that made their way into his writing." In the last three years of his life, the writing almost entirely displaced the conversation: Proust spent almost all his time in his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping by day and putting everything he had into his work at night. A contemporary photograph of Proust's cork-lined bedroom appears at the top of the post, as recently included in a tweet by writer Ted Gioia calling Proust the "master of social distancing."

Just above, you can watch a talk on the writer's room and hypersensitivities (of both the aesthetic and physical varieties) that put him into it by Proust scholar William C. Carter, author of Marcel Proust: A Life and Proust in Love. What might Proust's father, the epidemiologist Adrien Proust, have thought about a new epidemic making the people of the 21st century look to his son?  Even if we don't take him as a model for writing life, this is nevertheless an appropriate moment to read his work (now available free online at the Internet Archive's National Emergency Library). "What Proust inspires in us is to see and to appreciate every seemingly insignificant place or object or person in our lives," writes Friedkin, "to realize that life itself is a gift and all the people we’ve come to know have qualities worth considering and celebrating — in time."

via Ted Gioia

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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Why the University of Chicago Rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis (and How a Novel Got Him His Degree 27 Years Later)

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

Kurt Vonnegut has been gone a dozen years now, but in that time his stock in the world of American literature has only risen. Just a few months ago we featured the newly opened Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library here on Open Culture, and we've also posted about everything from his writing tips to his letters to his drawings. And we've featured his conception of "the shape of all stories" as originally laid out in his master's thesis at the University of Chicago, where between 1945 and 1947 he performed anthropological research into the Native American-inspired Ghost Dance religious movement of the late 19th century. "The fundamental idea," wrote Vonnegut, "is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads."

None of this flew with the anthropology department. In an essay in his book Palm Sunday Vonnegut explains the unanimous rejection of his thesis, "The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks," due to the fact that "it was so simple and looked like too much fun. One must not be too playful." Opting not to have a second go before the committee, the still-young Vonnegut — with his harrowing experience in the Second World War only a couple of years behind him — decided to take a job as a publicist at General Electric instead. In 1950, while still employed at GE, he would first publish a piece of fiction: "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" in Collier's magazine. "Years later," says the University of Chicago Chronicle's obituary for Vonnegut, "the university accepted Cat’s Cradle as Vonnegut’s thesis, awarding him an A.M. in 1971."

"This was not an honorary degree but an earned one," said Vonnegut in a 1973 interview, "given on the basis of what the faculty committee called the anthropological value of my novels. I snapped it up most cheerfully and I continue to have nothing but friendly feelings for the University." Indeed, Vonnegut called his time as a Phoenix "the most stimulating years of my life." Generations of readers have found in Vonnegut's work — not just Cat’s Cradle, the one that finally got him his academic credentials, but other novels like Mother NightBreakfast of Champions, and of course Slaughterhouse-Five as well — some of the most stimulating writing to come out of postwar America. And yet Vonnegut, as he writes in Palm Sunday, continued to regard his first master's thesis as "my prettiest contribution to my culture." The more successful the creator, it can often seem, the more dear he holds his failures.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

 

Neil Gaiman Talks Dreamily About Fountain Pens, Notebooks & His Writing Process in His Long Interview with Tim Ferriss

Last February, Neil Gaiman sat down for a 90-minute interview with author, entrepreneur and podcaster Tim Ferriss. At the 13:30 mark, the conversation turns to Gaiman's writing process, and there begins a long and lovely detour into the world of fountain pens (the Pilot 823, Viscontis, and the New York Fountain Pen Hospital in NYC), notebooks (why he prefers Leuchtturm German notebooks to Moleskines), and how he writes his novels out by hand. It's all carefully thought out:

Tim Ferriss: Are there any other rules or practices that you also hold sacred or important for your writing process?

Neil Gaiman: Some of them are just things for me. For example, most of the time, not always, I will do my first draft in fountain pen, because I actually enjoy the process of writing with a fountain pen. I like the feeling of fountain pen. I like uncapping it. I like the weight of it in my hand. I like that thing, so I’ll have a notebook, I’ll have a fountain pen, and I’ll write. If I’m doing anything long, if I’m working on a novel, for example, I will always have two fountain pens on the go, at least, with two different colored inks, at least, because that way I can see at a glance, how much work I did that day. I can just look down and go, “Look at that! Five pages in brown. How about that? Half a page in black. That was not a good day. Nine pages in blue, cool, what a great day.”

You can just get a sense of are you working, are you making forward progress? What’s actually happening. I also love that because it emphasizes for me that nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Tim Ferriss: Do you edit, then, as you’re looking or translating from the first draft on the page to the computer, or do you get it all down as is in the computer and then edit —

Neil Gaiman: No, that’s my editing process. I figure that’s my second draft is typing into the computer. Also, I love — backing up a bit here. When I was, what was I? 27, 28? In the days when we were still in typewriters and we were just a handful of people with word processors, which were clunky things with disks which didn’t hold very much and stuff, I edited an anthology and enjoyed editing my anthology.

Most of the stories that came in were about 3,000 words long. Move forward in time, not much, five, six, seven years. Mid ‘90s, everybody is now on computer, and I edited another short story anthology. The stories that were coming in tended to be somewhere between six- and 9,000 words long. They didn’t really have much more story than the 3,000 word ones, and I realized that what was happening is it’s a computer-y thing, is if you’re typing, putting stuff down is work. If you’ve got a computer, adding stuff is not work. Choosing is work. It expands a bit, like a gas. If you have two things you could say, you say both of them. If you have the stuff you want to add, you add it, and I thought, “Okay, I have to not do that, because otherwise my stuff is going to balloon and it will become gaseous and thin.”

What I love, if I’ve written something on a computer, and I decide to lose a chunk, it feels like I’ve lost work. I delete a page and a half, I feel like there’s a page and half that just went away. That was a page and a half’s worth of work I’ve just lost. If I’ve been writing in a notebook and I’m typing it up, I can look at something and go, “Oh, I don’t need this page and a half.” I leave it out, I just saved myself work, and it feels like I’m treating myself.

I’m just trying to always have in my head the idea that maybe I’m somehow, on some cosmic level, paying somebody by the word in order to be allowed to write, but if they’re there, they should matter, they should mean something. It’s always important to me.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned distraction earlier and your dangerously adorable son, which I certainly agree with. I had read somewhere, actually, before I get to that, this might seem like a very, very mundane question, but what type of notebooks do you prefer? Are they large legal pads or are they leather bound? What type of notebooks?

Neil Gaiman: When they came out, I really liked — I’ve used a whole bunch of different ones. I bought big drawing ones, which actually turned out to be a bit too big, though I liked how much I could see on the page. Those are the ones I wrote Stardust and American Gods in, big size, but they weren’t terribly portable. I went over to the Moleskines, and I loved them when they first came out, and then they dropped their paper quality. Dropping paper quality doesn’t matter, unless you’re writing in fountain pen, because all of a sudden it’s bleeding through, and all of a sudden you’re writing on one page, leaving a page blank because it’s bled through and then writing on the next page.

Joe Hill, about six or seven years ago, Joe Hill, the wonderful horror fantasy writer, suggested the Leuchtturm to me. My usual notebook right now is a Leuchtturm, because I really like the way you can paginate stuff in them and the thickness of the paper, and they’re just like Moleskines, but the Porsche of Moleskines. They’re just better.

I also have been writing, I wrote The Graveyard Book and I’m writing the current novel in these beautiful books that I bought in a stationery shop in Venice, built into a bridge. Somewhere in Venice there’s a little stationery shop on a bridge, and they have these beautiful leather-bound blank books that just look like hardback books, but they’re blank pages. I wrote The Graveyard Book in one of those. I bought four of them, and now I’m using the next one on the next novel, and it may well go into another one. I’m not sure.

Then, at home, I say at home, my house in Wisconsin, which is where my stuff is, I’ve got my — we live in Woodstock, but I have an entire life’s worth of stuff still sitting in my house in Wisconsin, and it’s become archives. It’s actually kind of fabulous having a house that is an archive, but waiting for me in that house is a book that I bought for myself about 25 years ago, and before I die, I plan to write a novel in it. It’s an accounts book from the mid-19th century. It’s 500 pages long. Every page is numbered. It’s lined with accounts lines, but really faint so it would be nice to write a book in it, and it is engineered so that every single page lies flat.

It’s huge and it’s heavy and it just looks like a book that Dickens or somebody would’ve written a novel in and I’ve just been waiting until I have an idea that is huge and weird and Dickensian enough, and whether or not I actually get to write it in dip pen, I’m not sure, but I definitely want to write it in an old Victorian, something slightly copper plating. One of those old flex nib pens that they stopped making when carbon paper came in, just so I can get that spidery Victorian handwriting.

Tim Ferriss: I’m just imagining you putting pen to the first page. When you finish the first page and what that will feel like. That’s going to be a good day.

Neil Gaiman: It will be either a good day or an incredibly bad day. When you get to the end of the first page, it’s “Oh no! I had this pristine — ” it is the thing that I tell young writers, and by young writers, a young writer can be any age. You just have to be starting out, which is anything you do can be fixed. What you cannot fix is the perfection of a blank page. What you cannot fix is that pristine, unsullied whiteness of a screen or a page with nothing on it, because there’s nothing there to fix.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a word, and it might be that I’m a little slow moving because I’m from Long Island, but Leuchtturm? What is that word?

Neil Gaiman: L-E-I-C-H, I think it’s T-U-R-M, and then 1917, I think is — their Twitter handle is definitely Leuchtturm1917.

Tim Ferriss: Leuchtturm, and I’ll put that in the show notes for folks, so you’ll be able to find it. Since you gave me — I’m not intending to turn this episode into a shopping list, but I’ve never used fountain pens.

Neil Gaiman: Really?

Tim Ferriss: I have not. My assistant, my dear assistant does. She loves using fountain pens. She enjoys the act. I’ve had a few sloppy false starts and then been rather impatient, but if I wanted to give it a shot, are there any particular fountain pens or criteria that you would use in picking a good pen?

Neil Gaiman: The biggest criteria I would use in picking, if you have the choice, is go somewhere like New York’s Fountain Pen Hospital.

Tim Ferriss: Is that a real place?

Neil Gaiman: It’s a real place. It’s called The Fountain Pen Hospital. They sell lots of new pens, they recondition old pens, they look after pens for you. And try them out, because the lovely thing about fountain pens is they are personal. You go, “No, no, no.” And then you find the one. I tend to suggest to people who are just nervously — “I’ve never used a fountain pen, what should I do?” I will point them at Lamy, L-A-M-Y, who have some fabulous starter pens, and they’re not very expensive, and they’re good. They do a pen called The Safari, but they have a bunch of good starter pens, and they’re just nice to get into the idea of, “Do I like doing this?”

Let’s see, what am I using right now? What have I got in here? This one here is a Pilot. It’s a Namiki, and it’s a flexing nib ever so slightly when you put down weight on it, the nib will spread. It’s a beautiful, beautiful pen. That one’s a Pilot. I think this one here is the Namiki. It’s really weird because Namiki is Pilot, so I don’t quite understand that.

Tim Ferriss: Maybe it’s a Toyota/Lexus thing?

Neil Gaiman: I think it is. It’s that kinda thing. This one here is called a Falcon, and again, you put a little bit of weight on it, and the line will just spread and thicken, which is part of the fun of fountain pens. I’ll go and play. There’s a lovely Italian one. I’ve got my agent, I did a thing some years ago when I realized that I was losing a lot of actual writing time to signing foreign contracts.

Tim Ferriss: This is for books?

Neil Gaiman: This is for books, or occasionally for stories or things being reprinted around the world. The contracts would come in and there would be big sheaves of them because they get printed all around the world, and foreign contracts, a lot of them you have to sign a lot. You have to do a lot of initialing and I would sit there going, “I have just spent 90 minutes signing a pile of contracts, and I love that I got to sign it, but —” I contacted my agent. I said, “Can I give you power of attorney? Would you mind? Would you just sign these things for me?”

She was like, “Absolutely!” Great. I got her — she’d never used a fountain pen and I got her a fountain pen. I actually went to The New York Fountain Pen Hospital with her, and did the thing of showing her pens, “What do you like?” I got her a Visconti, which are just these lovely Italian pens. Mostly I love, there’s a slightly fetishistic bit of having bottles of beautifully colored ink. When you start talking to fountain pen people, they really — they pretend to be interested in what pen you like, but they don’t care, because they’ve found their own pens that they love.

They say, “What do you use?”

I use Pilot 823s for signing. Actually now, I’ve got a Pilot 823, ’cause it’s just a fantastic signing pen. It’s a workhorse, it keeps going, and I got one in 2012 and it was my signing pen. I signed through Ocean at the End of the Lane. Before the book had come out, I had already pre-signed, written my signature 20,000 times with this pen.

Tim Ferriss: I have some footage of you icing your hand after said signings.

Neil Gaiman: That was a signing tour that I really got into icing my hand and wrist and arm. I did the numbers, and as far as I can tell, I’ve signed about one and a half million signatures with that pen, which remained, and I had to send it off to Pilot at one point, not because the nib was in trouble, because the plunger mechanism was starting to stick, and they fixed it for me and sent it back. Then my three-year-old son found a place behind a cast iron fireplace in our house in Woodstock where if you just insert your father’s Pilot 823 pen, which you have found on the table, just to see if it would go in there, you can actually guarantee that without disassembling the house, we actually have to take the entire house apart to uninstall a cast iron fireplace from 1913 to get at the pen. That pen now has been given as a sacrifice to the house gods, so I need to get a new one.

Tim Ferriss: Its strikes me, at least it seems as we’re talking that many of the decisions you’ve made, the tools you’ve found and enlisted, act to make not writing unappealing, or at least boring after five minutes, and to enhance the act of writing to make it something that is enjoyable. I don’t know if that’s true.

Neil Gaiman: That is true, but they also exist for another reason, which is kind of weird, which is to try and trivialize what I’m doing and not make it important and freighted down with weight, because that paralyzes me. When I started writing I had a typewriter. It was a manual typewriter. When I sold my first book, I had the money to buy an electric typewriter.

Tim Ferriss: What was that first book?

Neil Gaiman: Gosh. I actually don’t remember whether I bought the electric typewriter with the money from a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief, a book of science fiction and fantasy quotations I did with Kim Newman, or whether it was for the Duran Duran biography that I did. Either way, I was just 23. What I would do back then is I would do my rough draft on scrap paper, single spaced so that it couldn’t be used, and also so that I could get as many words on. Paper was expensive. I could always do that. I remember the joy of getting my first computer, and just the idea that I wasn’t making paper dirty. Nothing mattered until I pressed print, and that was absolutely and utterly liberating.

And then, a decade on, picking up a notebook, it was for Stardust, which I’d decided that I wanted the rhythms of Stardust to be very antiquated rhythms, and I thought there’s probably a difference to the way that one writes with a fountain pen. 17 century writing, 17th, 18th century writing, you notice tends to go in very, very long sentences and long paragraphs. My theory about this is that one reason why you get this is because you’’re using dip pens, and if you pause, they dry up. You just have to keep going. It forces you to do a kind of writing where you’re going for a very long sentence and you’re going to go for a long paragraph and you’re going to keep moving in this thing, and you’re thinking ahead.

If you’re writing on a computer, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fiddle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writing in fountain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page covered with crossings out, so it’s actually so much easier to just think a little bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re thinking the sentence through to the end, and then you start writing.

You write that, and then you pause and then you write the next one. At least that was the way that I hypothesized that I might be writing, and I wanted Stardust to feel like it had been written in the late 1920s. I thought to do that I should probably get myself a fountain pen and a book, so that was how I started writing that. Again, what I loved was suddenly feeling liberated. Saying, “Ah, I’m not actually making words that are not going down in phosphor on a computer screen.”

Watch the full interview above. Stream it as a podcast. Or read the complete transcript here.

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