Tag: essays

From Book Reports to Blogging: On Writing Essays

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In addition to teaching me (almost) everything I know about science, Isaac Asimov taught me that essay collections are poison at the box office. He then went on to become the exception that proved the rule by publishing scores of essays collections. Prior to reading Asimov’s essays, my general perception of the form was that it was something dull. I distinctly remember wondering why anyone would commit an essay on purpose.

This began to change for me in 10th grade. Prior to that, essays were things written for standardized tests. Or they were book reports. They were formulaic, the formula being one part introduction, two parts argument, one part rebuttal, and one part conclusion. This was how one made an argument in writing. Rhetoric, it was sometimes called. In older times, it was referred to as a “theme.” Good letters to the editor would often be comprised of the five paragraph essays in the measures listed above. Really good letters would also have five sentences to ensure publication.

In high school, this all changed. I went to a humanities magnet high school in which I was surrounded by a lot of really smart kids–although I didn’t know it at the time. Instead of the usual curriculum of English and History, we rotated through a core of four interdisciplinary subjects that wove through one another: Philosophy, Literature, Social Institutions, and Art History. A key component of the program was that we never had a test that was not an essay test.

A typically essay test for, say, 12th grade philosophy, might go something like this: “Prove you don’t exist. If there isn’t blood on the page before you finish, you can’t get an A.” That latter part, while actually stated aloud to us by our philosophy instructor, Ray Linn, was understood to be hyperbole. But the first part was legit. We had to write an essay to prove that we didn’t exist.

Studying for these essay tests meant reviewing everything we’d read, and trying out arguments. There was no way a five paragraph essay would work here. These essays had to be factual and creative. They were also intensely competitive. Upon completing an essay test (we typically had 2 hours to write our essays) we would meet in the hall and commiserate with one another. Instead of the usual, “What did you get for number 12?” we would hear things like, “I managed to write eleven pages. How many did you get?”

Keep in mind, this was the late 1980s. There were no iPhones or iPads. There were no laptops. We had paper and pen and our grades depending partly on our knowledge of the subject, partly on how well we communicated that knowledge, and partly on pure stamina: the literal blood on the page from blisters after two nonstop hours of writing. Still, we were encouraged to be creative and it was the pressure of the essays and the encouragement to be creative that began to change things for me.

In college, I never worried about essays that I had to turn in. Cleveland had prepared me for them. I often waited until the last minute to write them, but Cleveland Humanities Magnet (now Cleveland Charter School) had prepared me well. Typing a 5-page essay 2 hours before it was do was nothing compared to trying to write a cohesive essay by hand in 2 hours while trying to one-up your classmates by seeing how wordy you could make it. Much as a newspaper journalist learns how to write on deadline, I learned how to write essays on command. And my essays stood out. Many of the essays I saw fellow students write for a political science class in college began with a typical, “Machiavelli’s The Prince is an instruction manual for autocratic leadership in…” Mine started with verse that I made up on the spot, on a whim. I worried about that one a little, until I discovered the professor had posted it on a bulletin board as an example of a unique and creative way to write a paper. (In college, essays were always called “papers” for some reason.)

Being able to write on command like that has served me well ever since. But when I began to write with the idea of selling what I wrote, the essay never entered my mind. It was poison at the box office. I wanted to write stories, and stories are much harder to write than an essay.

By then I’d read hundreds (if not thousands) of Isaac Asimov’s essays. They were colloquial, often humorous, and entertaining. I learned new things from them. I could see how he made his arguments in convention ways and unconventional ways using the essay form. I started to branch out. I read a lot of Harlan Ellison’s essays. I read Stephen Jay Gould. I read Martin Gardner. I got to the point where I enjoyed essays as much as short stories, when they were interesting and well-written. From there I moved onto John McPhee, who introduced me to long-form nonfiction essays. And of course, E. B. White, who is the single best essayist that I have read.

At some point in 2005, I began to want to write essays like the ones I was reading, but who would I write them for? Who would read them? It was the desire to write essays that inspired me to start writing a blog. I wrote my very first essay for public consumption on October 10, 2005. In the more than 16 years since, I’ve committed more than 7,000 additional essays for this blog. You’d think I’d be sick and tired of it (or at the very least, my audience would) but the more I write these pieces, and the more I read other’s posts and essays, the more I want to do it.

Those early posts are often embarrassing in retrospect. Not just the subject matter, but the writing. I leave them up for historical purposes. It shows me (and others) where I began, and how far I have come. I think my essays are better today than they were five years ago. I think the ones I wrote five years ago are better than the ones from five years before that. And I am hopeful that the ones I write five years from now will be better than the ones I am writing today.

I’ve said before that I was incredibly fortunate to get to attend Cleveland Humanities Magnet high school. There, I learned critical thinking, but I also learned how to write. Real, practical writing, not the kind of writing that allows you to pass a test. I’ve said that if it wasn’t for Cleveland, it is likely I never would have published any of the fiction or nonfiction pieces that I’ve sold over the years. Even more, I owe a debt to my teachers who taught me the importance of an essay, and how it could be so much more than five parts boring. They taught me how to write a creative essay and without that, this blog simply would not exist.

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Notes on One Man’s Meat by E. B. White

There are certain books I return to again and again. One Man’s Meat by E. B. White is one of these books. I recently re-read it for the fifth time. I return to this book when I feel the need to be recharged both as a reader and a writer. One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays that E. B. White wrote between 1938 and 1943, mostly for Harper’s magazine. He needed a break from The New Yorker, and with his wife, an editor at The New Yorker, he left New York City for a salt water farm they had in Maine. There, in his “One Man’s Meat” column, he wrote about his life on the farm, books that interested him, movies that puzzled him, really whatever came to mind that month.

Reading the book again made me realize that E. B. White was writing a blog. I think that many essayists of the past who wrote regular columns for the magazines or newspapers were like this. The blogging tradition seems to take some of its DNA from magazine columnists. For good blogs (ones that I enjoy, anyway), there is a rhythm to these columns. Whether monthly, weekly, daily, there is comfort in knowing you’ve got a friend to tell you what’s what just around the corner. Essayists like E. B. White, Andy Rooney, Isaac Asimov, and many others were proto-bloggers.

White writes about whatever strikes his fancy, and does so with a degree of skill and clarity that I think is hard to find today. He often makes keen observations, as in his essay “Removal” from July 1938, where he write,

I beleive television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television–of that I am quite sure.

For a technology so new, this is an astute observation. White hedged his bets, but he was right on both counts: some television has been an unbearable disturbance (talk shows, news programs, reality TV); and yet some television has been a saving radiance in the sky: M*A*S*H, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The West Wing, Ted Lasso.

At heart White is a writer, and his observations of writers, through himself, always amuse me. In “Progress and Change” (December 1938*) he writes,

I have just been refining the room in which I sit, yet I sometimes doubt that a writer should refine or improve his workroom by so much as a dictionary; one thing leads to another and the first thing you know he has a stuff chair and is fast asleep in it. Half a man’s life is devoted to what he calls improvements, yet the original had some quality that is lost in the process.

While not explicitly stated (does it have to be?) I think White is talking about distractions that writers seek out to keep from facing the blank page. In the last two and a half years I managed a complete makeover of my own office, I replaced a desk and a chair, and I secretly told myself that all of this would make me a better writer.

White’s essays on “Movies” for May 1939 is one of the more amusing pieces. In reviewing the film Dark Victory, he performs a surgical takedown of the main character, who steals herself away to a small compound to get away from things for a while. There, she complains how she has “nothing.” Using common sense, White estimates the annual cost of the “nothing” the character complains about, completed with a table breaking down every last expense. The “nothing” amounts to $11,000 annually, which in 1938 rather is something1.

White not only takes down whiny film characters, but he sets me straight on a few things. I have long daydreamed of pickup and moving into a rural part of the country, to a place where I have to stretch the limits of my vision to see my neighbor’s house, where I don’t have to worry about the hustle and bustle of urban and suburban life, and where I never need worry about finding a parking place. Kelly says I would be miserable, but I think she means she would be miserable. A quiet life like that seems ideal to me. Not so, says White in his September 1939 essay “Second World War”:

I don’t know whether I came to the country to live the simple life; but I am now engaged in a life vastly more complex than anything the city has to offer.

Well, he was running a farm.

Sometimes, in my reading, I find that notions floating around today are nothing new at all. This is one of the greatest returns from reading history. Whatever we think is new has happened before in some form. I shouldn’t be surprised when this happens, but I am. I was startled, for instance, reading this passage in White’s July 1940 essay, “Freedom”:

Being myself a knight of the goose quill, I am under no misapprehension about “winning people”; but I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic that inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Marys, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example.

White was speaking of writers who are among the first line of defense for freedom, but his analogy: the we are “the hypodermic that inoculates” hit particularly close to home in these pandemic times.

These are wonderful essays: in “Maine Speech” (October 1940) he provides a Maine-to-English dictionary for those not familiar with Mainers unique way with words. In “The Wave of the Future” (December 1940) he provides a scathing review of Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s book of the same title. In “Once More to the Lake” (August 1941), White describes a passing thunderstorm only as E. B. White can:

In midafternoon (it was all the same) a curious darkening of the sky, and a lull in everything that had made life tick; and then the way the boats suddenly swung the other way at their moorings with the coming of a breeze out of a new quarter, and the premonitory rumble. Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chips in the hills. Afterward the calm, the rain steadily rustling in the calm lake, the return of light and hope and spirits, and the campers running out in joy and relief to go swimming in the rain, their bright cried perpetuating the deathless joke about getting drecnched and linking the generations in a strong indestructable chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.

One of my favorites is an almost frivolous piece from October 1941 called “Memorandum” in which he describes the two hundred plus chores and tasks he has to do around the farm on that day. But White’s a professional and doesn’t let those chores distract him from writing, the way the rest of us often do. Andy Rooney, who was a big fan of E. B. White, has written similar essays, a pastiche of White, and I in turn have tried my hand at this, an homage to White via Andy Rooney.

Once again, White’s word his home in 2021 when he complains about the government men who’ve come to examine his cows for potential disease in his essay “Control” (December 1942):

The reason there were a couple of men in my barn this morning, annoying my cow, is that some farmers had been dilatory about testing cows [for Bangs] even after science ahd made such tests easy and practical and doctors and undertakers had made the alternative plain. And the reason there will be a couple of strangers in all your barns and offices from now on, poking through your piles of accumulated trouble, is that somewhere in the past there were those vast untested herds spreading their fevers through the world. This is a sad outlook but one we shall have to face with what cheer is left in us.

I have yet to find a modern writer who writes with this consistency of depth, humor, and style. I read widely, but not widely enough. Or perhaps, such a writer simply doesn’t exist today.

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  1. It is approximately $216,000 in 2021 dollars. I wouldn’t call that “nothing.”

(Almost) Everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov

Two nights ago I braved the bitterly cold weather to check the mail. When I got outside, I looked up into a midnight blue sky, crystal clear in the cold air with stars shimmering brightly, and immediately saw a meteor disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. I remembered then that it was about the time of the Germinid meteor shower. I craned my neck back hoping to catch sight of another meteor, but that was it, the only one I saw. I was too cold to stand out there looking any longer. I ran to the mailbox, grabbed the mail, and came back into the warm house, stamping the cold out of my feet.

Looking up into that night sky reminded me of the sense of wonder that I felt when I looked up into a similar sky three decades earlier and realized for the first time that those lights in the sky I was seeing were actually distant suns, and that some of them were even planets. I was six or seven at the time. My parents bought me a telescope and I frustrated the librarians of the Franklin Township Public Library by repeatedly checking out the same book over and over again, The Nine Planets by Franklyn Mansfield Branley. It was my introduction to science.

I never learned about the Germinid meteor shower in any of my schooling. Instead, I learned about it and about meteor showers in general through Isaac Asimov’s science essays that appeared monthly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first of Asimov’s science essays appeared in the November 1958 issue (of which I happen to posses a copy).

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Those monthly science columns continued unabated for 399 consecutive months. (And eventually, Isaac’s wife, Janet, put together a 400th column after his death.) The essays were collected in more than two dozen books. The columns themselves ranged through all realms of science, and occasionally into philosophy and humanities. They were written in Asimov’s familiar colloquial style, making it easy for anyone to approach even arcane subjects. I devoured every one of those essays and it is from those essays that I truly believe that I learned nearly everything I know about science today.

Don’t get me wrong: I did learn some science in school. Prior to junior high school, I have little memory of any specific science lessons. In high school, I took AP biology, chemistry (for some reason the AP version was not offered), and AP physics. In biology, I learned about things like the Krebs cycle and the basics of genetics and inheritance, and cellular anatomy. This was essentially rote memorization and despite being an “advanced placement” class, I was more or less taking the teacher’s word on these things. From Isaac Asimov, I learned much more. I learned, for instance, how the Krebs cycle was discovered, which fixed it much more clearly in my mind. I learned the fascinating story of Gregor Mendel and how he discovered the laws of inheritance and how they were then lost to science for another generation.

In high school chemistry (and later, in college general and organic chemistry), I memorized the periodic table and was taught how to balance chemical formulas. Isaac Asimov taught me how Dmitri Mendeleev developed the period table and how he predicted the properties of elements long before they were ever discovered. The insights this gave me into chemistry went far beyond anything I learned in my formal classes. In his essay “Life’s Bottleneck” (F&SF, April 1959) he taught me biochemistry in a way that showed the precarious balance of nature and how remarkable it was that just the right conditions existed to support life.

I grew to love physics when I took AP physics in high school with Dr. Goldman, who was one of the few good explainers of science I’ve run into. Still, while I learned equations for light and magnetism in his class, Isaac Asimov made such subjects come to life in a practical way for me with essays like  “The Bridge of the Gods” (F&SF, March 1975) about rainbows, refraction and light, and his essay “Four Hundred Octaves” (F&SF, June 1982) on the physics of light. He was the Great Explainer and it was from essays like “The Man Who Massed the Earth” (F&SF, September 1969) that I learned that science was a continually evolving thing. It’s one thing to learn that the Earth weighs 5.9×10^24 kilograms. It’s something else to learn just how scientists figured that out. The former I learned in school; the latter I learned from Isaac Asimov.

Asimov’s essays taught me not only the hows and whys of science, they taught me the history of science. Taken together, anyone who reads all 399 F&SF science essays can’t miss certain patterns in logic and reasoning, can’t miss the evolution of thought and experiment. The essays taught me that scientists were real men and women.  Essays like “The Isaac Winner’s” (July 1963) highlighted the triumphs of some of the most remarkable scientists of all time. Other essays taught me that even scientists can make mistakes, can be wrong, and that a whole premise of the scientific method is to look for holes in theories, and to revise hypotheses as new data is accumulated.

Occasionally, Asimov’s science essayed ventured into the truly remarkable (in my opinion). His essay, “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” (F&SF, September 1966) was a remarkably original (at the time) approach to cosmology.  His essays like “The Height of Up” (F&SF, October 1959) looked at how far away things could be and asked if there were limits.  He had other essays that looked at the smallest possible sizes, or the hottest possible temperature.

His essays on math and numbers fixed certain concepts more firmly in my mind than any trigonometry or algebra class ever did. His essay “Exclamation Point!” (F&SF, 1965) taught me factorials in a far better way than any of my math teachers. Essays like “The Ultimate Split of the Second” and “The Week Excuse” (F&SF, June 1972)  taught me about time and calendars in an original an vivid way.

Sometimes, Asimov’s essays ventured out from the realm of pure science and in most of these cases, the results were among some of the best nonfiction writing I’ve encountered.  His essay “Thinking About Thinking” (F&SF, January 1975) talked about the value (or lack thereof) of intelligence tests.  His essay, “Crowded!” introduced me to the population problem. And one of his most remarkable essays, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” (F&SF, January 1973) looked at the evolution of books.

Reading his essays on quasars and lunar eclipses and the tallest mountains and longest rivers sparked my imagination and my sense of wonder about the universe and probably have as much to do with my love of science fiction as his science fiction does. It was from Isaac Asimov that I learned things like the square-cube law, transfinite math, and compound math, things never covered in any of my high school textbooks.

Today, only a few of these essays are truly dated. Some facts have changed because science evolves, but the core is still valid and the history that these essays provides is an invaluable tool for understanding the cumulative nature of science. Seven of these early essays were never put into any collections, and there were six or seven that Asimov wrote before his death that have not, to my knowledge, been collected either. Perhaps I am a lone voice in the wilderness here, but I think it’s high time that a newly reissued compendium of all of Isaac Asimov’s F&SF science essays be put together and re-released. There is an audience of millions of school-aged children who are not getting adequate science educations out there and such a reissue could provide them (especially those curious ones) the additional nourishment they are lacking. And besides, there are any number of adults who might be interested in such a reissue as well.

There are some good science writers out there today, but none of them, in my opinion, come close to capturing full sweep of science, history, and sense of wonder that the Good Doctor did for more than thirty years in his essays in F&SF. When I say that I learned nearly everything I know about science from Isaac Asimov, I am not kidding.

Shouldn’t we make this knowledge available to kids (and grownups) today?

“It wasn’t all that easy”

The February 2009 issue of ASIMOV"S has a great "Reflections" essay by Robert Silverberg called, "It Wasn’t All That Easy", in which he talks about the the time when he was a young, would-be writer, seeing all of his heroes sell stories and become famous, while he collected rejection after rejection.  He wondered if he’d ever make it, ever become like them.  I know how he feels, and that made the essay all the more meaningful.  You should check it out, if you are so-inclined.

When I Wrote the Learned Astronomer

Edmund Schubert, editor over at Intergalactic Medicine Show, asks all author who have had stories published there to write an essay on how they came to write their story. Since my story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” is in the current issue, I wrote an essay for Edmund. That essay is now available for anyone interested.

You can find the essay here on Edmund’s blog.

Death by Black Hole

I just finished reading Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson and I give it 5-stars. It was outstanding! I rarely rate a book as 5-stars and it has to be truly remarkable for me to do so. The last book that I ranked as 5-stars was First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, and I read that book back in early November 2005, some 15 months ago. So 5-star books are few and far between.

The book is a collection of science essays, mostly on astrophysics, taken from his “Universe” column in NATURAL HISTORY magazine. The essays themselves were fascinating, but what pushed them over the edge was their colloquial style, and the humor that Tyson brought to them. Among my favorite essays in the book: “Stick-in-the-Mud Science”, “Hollywood Nights”, and “Holy Wars”.

Anyone out there who enjoys popular science, especially cutting-edge discussions of the universe on macroscopic and microscopic scales, will enjoy this book.

The tough part about reading a 5-star book is that it is always very difficult to follow up. The next book I am reading is Isaac Asimov’s The Secret of the Universe, also a collection of science essays (and one which I have read once before, but that has never made it onto my reading list because I read it prior to 1996). I love Asimov’s science essays from F&SF and I have read them all. I figured this would be the one thing with which I could follow up another great book of science essays.

Superbowl Sunday

I was up at 7:30 this morning and headed over to IHOP to have breakfast. Apparently, today is Superbowl Sunday; restaurants around town have signs out front pleading people to come watch the big game at their establishments. I don’t even know what time the game starts, let alone who is playing. Back when I lived in L.A., Superbowl Sunday was the one day every year that Dan, Megan, Tawnya and I would go to Disneyland; the park was usually pretty empty that day.

It’s sunny but cold out today. February is usually the worst winter month here in the D.C. area, but so far it hasn’t been too bad, and when I looked at the forecast this morning, it looks like we’re in for much of the same, so February could end up being a pretty mild month, like the rest of the winter thus far.

I got through about 45 pages of Death by Black Hole last night, and I actually really enjoyed it. I’m skeptical about reading science essays by anyone other than Isaac Asimov, because his were just so good. But Dyson does a really good job, and it’s no surprise, as he cites Stephen Jay Gould as being his model for an ideal science essayist. I’ve also read Gould’s essays and they are very good too. In fact, I’d say that Asimov, Gould and Martin Gardner are among my favorite essayists when it comes to science, but Tyson is pretty good too. I’m looking forward to getting through some more of the book this morning.

Automatic For the People is my favorite R.E.M. album and I very rarely listen to it straight through, but this morning, I was in the mood to hear it. It always brings back vivid memories of my junior year at UCR.

Character counts 10 year anniversary interview

I’m a big fan of Michael Josephson’s “Character Counts” essays on KNX 1070 in Los Angeles. The daily essays on ethics and character are a breath of fresh air compared to most news programming out there. Recently, these essays have reached their 10th anniversary.

Tomorrow, at 11 AM Pacific (2 PM Eastern), there will be a one-hour long interview with Michael Josephson on KNX 1070 in L.aA. For those of you no longer living in L.A., you can listen to the interview (as I will) on the live feed at http://www.knx1070.com. Click on the “Listen Live” button once you get to the site to listen to the program.