Sunday, October 6, 2013

How I Write - Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky is one of the wisest people still around and this interview is full of excellent insights; read the whole thing, its has lots of wisdom.
  • I was OK with writing, and throughout college I didn't have a writer's block. So I had friends who would pull their hair out over it, and that was sort the central organizing emphasis of their life, and I never had a writer’s block. It was something that I was OK at, but nothing I took any great pleasure in. I never took a literature class in college, or any English course or anything. And I was not particularly into writing, and it was not until after I finished college—right after, a week after graduation—I went off to Africa for a year and a half to begin to get my field work started, which I have been doing ever since for twenty-five years and it was fairly isolated site, where a lot of the time I was by myself. I would go 8 to 10 hours a day without speaking to anyone, I would get a mail drop about once every two weeks or so, there was no electricity, there was no radio, there was no anything, and I suddenly got unbelievably, frantically dependent on mail. So as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you. So what would happen is, all I could afford at the time were like these one-page aerogram things that you could sort of get in these big stacks, and something vaguely interesting would happen every couple of days or so. So you would write to somebody about it, and then you would write to the next person about it, and you would realize that before the end of the day, you had just written 25 versions of it, each of which was a page and a half long. And I think somehow the process that year, sort of the writing just got very intertwined with sort of all of the more emotional issues, and there was definitely a shift there. I mean, before that I was a very, sort of a very serious musician, and a year and a half out in the field completely wiped that out, and there was a transition during that time from music to writing.
  • You know, I’m fairly socially disconnected. I’m an academic; all I do is work and that sort of thing. So I have no idea of what’s going on out in most of the world out there and culture, so People magazine allows me to recognize, like, the names of the most important humans on earth for the next ten minutes and let’s me understand why they’ve broken up with whoever or like being a UN ambassador to a refugee camp or some such thing. And it just, it gives you sort of an anchoring for cultural references and stuff. 
  • Since most scientists that I know think decide there is absolutely no way they could to do without becoming totally simplistic and distortive. And there's even a snotty term in science for what this is about. Carl Sagan with his billions and billions of stars, he’s like the most successful science writer of his time, and, as a result of doing that, he totally destroyed his scientific career. And the snotty term that’s used for it among scientists is, that one gets “Saganized.” There’s a presumption that if you’re spending so much time doing this that you can’t possibly do good, serious science any more. And it actually, it did quite literally damage his professional career. So there’s an assumption that they cannot be simplified or whatever, and, you know, obviously there’s a certain amount of distortion that comes in with it, but, you know—back to the question before— people really need to learn this stuff. Like, one of my favorite pieces is…I constantly crank out pieces that get back to the same theme: “genes do not determine behavior, genes do not determine anything, there’s next to no genetic determinism, this is politically dangerous, blah, blah.” And like most of them wind up being really preachy and irritating.

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