Productive frustration, lost libraries, and required reading for aspiring writers

As I read  Ben Greenman’s “Lives” essay in today’s New York Times Magazine, this caught my eye:

By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests.

I like the term “productive frustration” because it is an apt description of part of the research process. Finding quick answers to simple questions is easy, but it shuts down the process. When you wrestle with more complex questions, try to figure out what you need to know and the different ways you might look for it, or can’t find what you’re searching for, it’s an opportunity to think more creatively, explore new paths, feed your curiosity, and make unexpected discoveries. As the Gaga librarians sang, “when it comes to search if it’s not tough it isn’t fun…”

Here are links to some other excellent pieces I read this week:

Craig Fehran’s “Lost Libraries: The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections” describes what happened to the personal libraries of David Foster Wallace, David Markson, John Updike, Mark Twain, and other authors after their deaths:

Most people might imagine that authors’ libraries matter–that scholars and readers should care what books authors read, what they thought about them, what they scribbled in the margins. But far more libraries get dispersed than saved. In fact, David Markson can now take his place in a long and distinguished line of writers whose personal libraries were quickly, casually broken down….

The issues at stake when libraries vanish are bigger than any one author and his books. An author’s library offers unique access to a mind at work, and their treatment provides a look at what exactly the literary world decides to value in an author’s life….

Charles Stross’ post “Why Wikipedia is the writer’s friend” explains why fiction writers should do at least enough research to avoid errors and prevent the collapse of suspension of disbelief. Though I certainly don’t recommend using Wikipedia as your source for research and fact-checking, I strongly agree with his larger point: 

Always do, at a minimum, a brief fact-check on everything you write in a work of fiction with a non-fantastical/far future setting. Otherwise you will be sorry….

Fiction relies upon the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief — if you’re immersed in a novel, it helps not to be jerked up short every ten seconds by the realization that the setup is nonsensical….

John Scalzi’s “Writing: Find the Time or Don’t.” This post should be required reading for all aspiring writers:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

If your answer is “yes,” then the question is simply when and how you find the time to do it. If you spend your free time after work watching TV, turn off the TV and write. If you prefer to spend time with your family when you get home, write a bit after the kids are in bed and before you turn in yourself. If your work makes you too tired to think straight when you get home, wake up early and write a little in the morning before you head off….

And if you can’t manage that, then what you’re saying is that you were lying when you said your answer is “yes.” Because if you really wanted to write, you would find a way to make the time, and you would find a way to actually write….

But if you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake…. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s