Will Eaves’s novel ‘Murmur’ – inspired by real-life tragedy of Alan Turing – wins £30,000 literature prize

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The novelist and poet Will Eaves has won the 2019 Wellcome book prize for his fictionalised take on the chemical castration of mathematician Alan Turing.

‘Murmur’ (read our review here), published by CB Editions, was hailed as “a future classic” by judges of the £30,000 prize. It is Eaves’s fifth novel and the third published by the independent printing press run by Charles Boyle. The book has been picking up critical acclaim since it was published – winning the Republic of Consciousness award earlier in 2019 and being shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize and James Tait and Folio awards.

Taking its cue from the arrest and legally enforced chemical castration of the mathematician Alan Turing, Murmur is the account of a man who responds to intolerable physical and mental stress with love, honour and a rigorous, unsentimental curiosity about the ways in which we perceive ourselves and the world.

Formally audacious, daring in its intellectual inquiry and unwaveringly humane, Will Eaves’s new novel is a rare achievement that explores everything from love, society, mathematics, memory and consciousness itself.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Eaves said of his novel:

“I was very nervous about tackling Turing. I’m not a mathematician so I had to work hard to understand the meta-mathematics of Godelian incompleteness, the Entscheidungsproblem, etc, and I hope I haven’t made too many errors. For fictional purposes, he had to be his own avatar: I couldn’t allow myself to put words into the mouth of a genius. That would have been wrong. But I think my overall wager is sound. Murmur tries to find a dramatic paraphrase for Turing’s physical, mental and political predicament. It asks: how does one fit the personal experience of trauma into a material conception of the world? The story’s scientist, Alec Pyror, discovers that the outward responses one gives to the world are not necessarily related to the inner life, which may be crying out, in great distress. At the same time, the novel resists that pain. It’s the story of a man trying to overcome desolation and self-pity by objectifying the trauma.”

The judges of the Wellcome Prize, awarded to pieces of exceptional scientific writing, were left stunned by the impact of the novel. The judges called it an “extraordinary contemplation of consciousness” and “a feverish meditation on love, state-sanctioned homophobia and knowledge, alongside an exploration of sexuality, identity and artificial intelligence”.

Chair of judges, the novelist Elif Shafak, called Murmur “hugely impressive”, adding that it “will grip you in the very first pages, break your heart halfway through, and in the end, strangely, unexpectedly, restore your faith in human beings, and their endless capacity for resilience”.

“Every sentence, each character … is well-thought, beautifully written and yet there is a quiet modesty all the way through that is impossible not to admire,” said Shafak. “Whether he intended this or not, Will Eaves has given us a future classic and for this, we are grateful to him.”

Given the subject matter, the skill of the writer and the breadth of the novel’s scope, it is perhaps no surprise that Murmur is already being hailed as a groundbreaking piece of fiction that will influence readers for years to come. As Nothing in the Rulebook‘s own Professor Wu noted: “Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into an incredible world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence, written all the while with skill, care, and attention. What’s not to love?”

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Book review: Perennial, by Ben Armstrong

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In science fiction, space and time warps are a commonplace. They are used for rapid journeys around the galaxy, or for travel through time. But there is an integer at which fact and fiction collide – where the relativity of space-time comes into play – and it at this point, the writer suggests, we might find poetry.

Ben Armstrong’s searing debut poetry collection, Perennial, is laced with this relativity; a sense of warped perspectives as different narrative voices walk us through different places and different times – with different poems separated within themselves and sometimes from each other by a clear sense of distance. Distance between one object and another; between one lover and another; between the past and present; between a remembered thought and feeling and a prediction of a future life.

Yet while the idea of the space (either physical or fourth dimensional) between two set points helps drive the core narrative of the collection, Armstrong’s poetry stridently ignores rules of Euclidean geometry – embracing instead the science fiction (or fact – as Hawkin and Einstein would insist) of space-time warps and jumps. Shifts in tense, and perspectives, blur lines, all the while experimental formal structures breakdown boundaries and conventions, helping the reader rearrange language in unique and surprising ways.

And by jove does this surprise you. From the greeting that opens the poem to the sad vision of a remembered goodbye, Perennial takes us on a ride infused both with comedy and tragedy, seeped with allusions and allegory that are literary, modern, classical, punk, political and pop-culture, using faux-satirical homages to classical literary figures and Homeric journeys, as well as very specific moments in scenes that collide together like atoms in a collapsing neutron star.

Take, for example, the shift in tone and style between ‘old bar’ and ‘Coca Cola Focus Group’. The former: a rather beautiful meditation on loneliness and the risks of being consumed by one’s memories. The latter: an extremely fun, engaging, and wry skit on the failings of modern capitalism. Both are excellent – but what the hell are they doing beside one another? In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace the unpredictability and recognise the order within the otherwise apparent disorder. As Dr Ian Malcolm would say in sci-fi classic Jurassic Park, “it doesn’t obey set patterns or rules […] it’s chaos” (to be clear: in Perennial, the chaos is very much a good thing – not one likely to involve the risk of being eaten by dinosaurs, though probably best never to rule that option out completely).

In short, Perennial sets the highest of high bars as a debut collection and firmly marks Armstrong out as a poet to keep an eye on. Not least because his work reminds us just how damn fun poetry can be.

“Stop poisoning the air, water and topsoil” – Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to the future

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Fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five works of non-fiction stand as a towering testament of Kurt Vonnegut’s ability to show us the fantastic in literature, and the extent to which books and writing can make us feel sublime. The man who brought us the terrific Slaughterhouse 5, which experiments in form, structure, as well as time and inter-dimensional travel, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest literary titans of the last 200 years.

And the man who has given us some of the finest, timeless advice on writing and reading has also provided some prescient advice on the way we should live our lives. Indeed, in 1988, he collaborated with TIME Magazine to write a letter to the future population of Humanity, in the year AD 2088.

The purpose of the project was simple: to provide “some words of advice” to those living in 2088”. Vonnegut’s words of advice are, of course, that trademark and distinctive blend of satire and sincerity, and – at a time when the world increasingly seems destined for catastrophe (what with the election of various demagogues-cum-fascists in major countries around the globe, along with the passing of the carbon threshold, mass extinction of flora and fauna, rising global temperatures and increasing inequality) – it seems we need to revisit Vonnegut’s words now more than ever before.

His letter and 7 pieces of advice for our future selves is printed here below:

 

“Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:

  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.

Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.

Cheers,

Kurt Vonnegut”

 

 

 

The genius of obsessiveness

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world,” so wrote author and essayist David Foster Wallace. Such is the essence of the trial involved in creating groundbreaking work.

This is true not only of creative pursuits, but also a general truism. In science, Marie Curie spent hours toiling in her laboratory. Astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

Yet for artists, writers, musicians and creatives of all ilks, perhaps the singular turmoil of creative geniuses is the compulsion to try, again and again, to craft the perfect sentence; draw the perfect outline; write the perfect musical rhythm. This can lead to days spent working and reworking on projects that take years to bear fruit. This may give the illusion of madness to the outside world – the well-worn adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results comes to mind here – but nonetheless, this relentless obsessiveness in the pursuit of creative perfection remains a central driving force in the interior life of creative genius.

This relationship between genius and madness is what theoretical cosmologist and astrophysicist Janna Levin examines in a portion of her (somewhat unusual) book, ‘How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space’.

Levin, who characterises her fascination with the madness of mathematicians as “morbid but harmless” and wonders whether “brushes with insanity are occupational hazards,” writes:

“Insanity, madness, obsession, math, objectivity, truth, science and art. These friends always impress me. They’re sculptors and tailors, not scientists or spies. I’ve chosen them with the peculiar attentiveness of a shell collector stupidly combining the overwhelming multitude of broken detritus to hold up one shell so beautiful that it finds its way into my pocket, lining my clothes with sand. And then another. Not too many, so that the sheer number could never diminish the value of one.”

Reflecting on the similarities she sees across geniuses, Levin posits that a compulsion towards obsessiveness is a unifying characteristic, and that from this iterative obsessiveness, which at times verges on insanity, spring the advancements we experience as groundbreaking — repetition becomes the wellspring of revelation. Somehow, though they may appear blinded by their compulsions, minds of genius see more clearly into the nature of things, into some microscopic or monumental aspect of the world that evades the rest of us.

This same obsessiveness is highlighted by another great thinker of the 20th century, French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette:

“To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play around a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts, and adorning it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.

To write is to sit and stare, hypnotised, at the reflection of the window in the silver inkstand, to feel the divine fever mounting to one’s cheeks and forehead while the hand that writes grows blissfully numb upon the paper. It also means idle hours curled up in the hollow of the divan, and then the orgy of inspiration from which one emerges stupefied and aching all over, but already recompensed and laden with treasures that one unloads slowly on to the virgin page in the little round pool of light under the lamp.

To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, overdriven by the impatient god who guides it — and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that boomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.”

Colette remained animated by this same creative restlessness, the same uncontainable compulsion to write, to continue to do the same thing over and over, that filled her youth. Shortly before her death – at the age of eighty-one – she writes:

“My goal has not been reached; but I am practicing. I don’t yet know when I shall succeed in learning not to write; the obsession, the obligation are half a century old. My right little finger is slightly bent; that is because the weight of my hand always rested on it as I wrote, like a kangaroo leaning back on its tail. There is a tired spirit deep inside of me that still continues its gourmet’s quest for a better word, and then for a better one still.”

For creatives who find themselves fighting their inner compulsions in order to cope with the rigours of the modern, neoliberal capitalist world, the takeaway here seems clear: do not ignore your obsession, your feeling of obligation to your work or ideas. Simply: give in.

The science of beautiful writing

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Man has an instinctive inclination toward communication and the written word. Indeed, it is writing that can be held up as the defining record of our civilisation – an enduring and expansive catalogue of human feeling, expression, discourse, thought, history and philosophy. Yet we are also drawn to the study of writing as an art form – inspired by a belief that, through learning, tips and advice, we can learn to write well and beautifully.

Perhaps this is because good writing has to be learned – and even if there are those who possess a natural flair or talent for the craft, this must be honed and cut from its raw bedrock if it is to be perfected. As David Oglivy – iconic businessman and original ‘Mad Man’ – wrote in a 1982 memo to his advertising agency employees: “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”

Yet to move beyond simply ‘good writing’, and to attempt to create writing that might be termed great, canonical or beautiful, is to learn more than simple writing tips, tricks and hints. In fact, it requires no less than the someone miraculous mastery of “style” – a rather illusive term that nonetheless is at the heart of one of the most important writing guides; Strung and White’s The Elements of Style, a book of legendary status that has inspired countless writers – and even inspired a rap.

Nearly a century after The Elements of Style was first published, Harvard’s Steven Pinker – arguably today’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist – has now taken up the task of trying to articulate the science of beautiful writing, in his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

In the prologue, Pinker writes:

“I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind?”

From this starting point, Pinker approaches the question of style first and foremost as a scientist – applying the findings of his field to debunking a number of longstanding dogmas and dictums about writing that are often followed blindly, for instance:

“We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.”

However, there is nothing cold or overly analytical in this scientific deconstruction. And this is thanks, largely, to the very obvious fact that the book has ultimately been inspired by Pinker’s love of writing and the written word.

His broader point that carries through the book is that language is not a set of static doctrines; but rather a living, breathing thing – born from a dynamic interaction between writer and reader, speaker and listener. This is the inverse of E.B White’s ‘ecstasy’ of reading – in which White notes that “as in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading – the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent.”

Because of this intimate relationship, and because of the organic nature of writing, Pinker notes that such rigid rules are both limiting and unnecessary:

“Although some of the rules can make prose better, many of them make it worse, and writers are better off flouting them. The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect, but a skilled writer needs to keep them straight. And the orthodox stylebooks are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time. Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.”

This cross-contamination – or fertilization – of ideas is what drives language and literature forward. Writers have long noted the influence of other writers on themselves and their own work, and this can be seen as a natural evolution of consciousness, creativity, culture and, ultimately – style. As nobel-prize winning writer, J.M Coetzee, notes in this detailed interview:

“There are works of literature whose influence is strong but indirect because it is mediated through the whole of the culture rather than immediately through imitation. Wordsworth is the case that comes to mind. I see no marks of Wordsworths style of writing or style of thinking in my own work, yet Wordsworth is a constant presence when I write about human beings and their relations to the natural world. […]

“One does not pick up ideas from writers, but a style, an attitude to the world [which] as it soaks in, becomes part of the personality, part of the self, ultimately indistinguishable from the self.”

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As we continue with Pinker’s book, then, we see that his personal intention is to “distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” and to supplant “dogma about usage with reason and evidence.”

The trick then, is to apply insights, writing advice and tips, mindfully – rather than robotically. This is, then, ultimately about consciousness, and deliberately thinking hard about why we do what we do and understanding our intentions when it comes to penning a word, a phrase, a short story, a novel.

Pinker carries on, denoting the three main reasons why style is so important – and why it matters so much today:

“First, it ensures that writers will get their messages across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose…

Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily…

Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures… This thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.”

Pinker, then, does not take Oscar Wilde’s view that “nothing worth knowing can be taught”. Rather, he believes fervently and passionately that everyone and anyone can learn to write beautifully, and write with style – through a combination of both instruction, and – most importantly – by absorption. A kind of creative osmosis, whereupon one is fertilized by the ideas and writings of others. Our own writing self, then, is not who we personally are – but is rather a continually learning, growing thing, created by all the writers we have read and all the ideas we have heard and all the things we have seen.

The most important scientific tool to enable one to write beautifully, then, is no new gadget – no minimalist typewriter – but rather the simple book. And the best guide to good writing is good reading. Just as Susan Sontag said she became a writer by first becoming a reader, and like David Foster Wallace – who urged his writing students to read a lot and read attentively, and as Ray Bradbury advised aspiring writers that the only education they needed was available to them through their local library – so too does Pinker advocate the immeasurable value of reading in learning to write:

“Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash… The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.”

He offers some words of assurance to those entering the craft:

“An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”

The siren call of clichés

But, of course, there are a few time-honoured elements to be aware of, if one is searching to “approach their excellence”. And perhaps the most important of these, Pinker suggests, is to resist any and all urge to fall back to tired clichés:

“Every writer faces the challenge of finding a superlative in the English word-hoard that has not been inflated by hyperbole and overuse… Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces.”

Thankfully, Pinker is on hand to offer keen advice on how to search out the perfect word:

“Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand (several are available as smartphone apps), and writers should not hesitate to send their readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again. (You can probably do without maieuticpropaedeutic, and subdoxastic.) I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.”

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Writing as conversation

Ultimately, Pinker reminds us that writing is a “kind of conversation, or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy” – and because of that is alike to the instinctive human need to communicate (just as Darwin noted that “man has an instinctive tendency to speak”).

However, the trick with writing is to converse with invisible men and women – our inscrutable readers who never show us their reactions. This may at first sound challenging; however, as writers the prescription or remedy to this challenge should come easy enough, since Pinker suggests it requires a simple act of imagination:

“At the time we write, the reader exists only in our imaginations. Writing is above all an act of pretense. We have to visualize [a conversation], and put words into the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.”

Is there such a thing as the ‘perfect daily routine’ for writing?

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During her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck thrilled a captive audience with her description of the shimmering aliveness from which a creative work is born: “The creative instinct is, in its final analysis and in its simplest terms, an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably to an individual, a vitality great beyond all the needs of his own living […] this energy consumes itself then in creating more life, in the form of music, painting, writing or whatever is its most natural medium of expression […] it is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell.”

This description of inspiration – an event (if we might describe it thus) both mental and physical – will be recognisable to all creative types who have ever been overcome by it. Yet discovering it has been, at best, an elusive hunt. Whether it is even possible to manufacture the conditions necessary to draw inspiration out from whichever haunt it keeps, so that it might spur the creative onto create the art they seek to make, remains a contentious debate. Is there a way to produce the inspiration needed – and also to keep hold of that inspiration long enough to express it adequately – to produce a great creative work? Or is there a mystic, divine-intervention element to inspiration and creativity?

It is the belief – or hope – that inspiration and creativity can be nurtured by the practices and processes we, as creatives, employ, which remains the unspoken assumption beneath all creative writing courses; in the subtext of all writing tips from writers; and behind the daily routines employed by creatives. They point to what might be described as the ritualization of creativity – or attempts to advise others as to what daily processes they may employ to invoke the muse.

There is something quasi-religious, half-ceremonial about such processes and routines. Writers can get quite pernickety about them. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached to a running scroll with sealing wax. James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat – and composed Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard.  Virginia Woolf spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar. John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray.

Yet does such ceremony – rooted in strange uneasy feelings of superstition – actually help the creative writer? Or is it down to sheer determination? Samuel Johnson, after all, said simply that “composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance”, and contended that, rather than need a particularly angled desk, “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”

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Intriguingly, psychological analysis suggests these creative rituals may be both cognitively sound and creatively fruitful.

The Psychology of Writing

Cognitive psychologist, Ronald T Kellogg, illuminates the role of the daily routine in producing inspiration and enhancing creativity in his work The Psychology of Writing. In this volume, he explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments all effect how much time we spend trying to write – and also influence how much of that time is spent feeling bored, anxious, or bound up in actually writing or being otherwise creative. Kellogg writes:

“[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.”

Among many of Kellogg’s interesting findings relating to the impact of our writing habits and environments, is the attention paid to background noise. Here, we find that high-intensity noise (exceeding 95 decibels) disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple, boring tasks. The reason for this is that noise raises arousal levels, which helps us stay alert during mindless and monotonous work, but can distract and agitate us out of creative work when immersed in the kind of work that requires deliberate, reflective thought. Scientific evidence to support therefore, our previous suggestion that when it comes to writing, we need silence.

Yet the degree to which we are affected by such environmental factors also concerns our natural disposition toward anxiety (or lack thereof). Kellogg notes that writers more afflicted with anxiety – an unfortunately rising epidemic in our 24/7, post-Fordist, hyper-commercialised, society – tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. And the degree to which one feels anxious similarly affects how much noise one can put up with. This is almost scaleable – so that on the one hand you have Proust – who wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds – and the other you have Allen Ginsberg, who was known for being able to write anywhere; from trains to planes to public parks and bustling streets.

Each writer, therefore, has a highly subjective requirement for what makes a daily creative routine effective in preserving the state of inspiration and creativity:

“The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.”

Forget the 9 to 5

Another key observation Kellogg makes regards the amount of time spent writing. Several studies indicate that working for 1 to 3 hours at a time, then taking a break before resuming, is most conducive to productivity. What is more, studies on circadian rhythms suggest that performance on intellectual tasks peak during morning hours, whereas perceptual motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening.

Intriguingly, these findings almost perfectly mirror Kurt Vonnegut’s daily routine. Perhaps therefore showing that certain creatives are naturally predisposed to work in a way that naturally complements their creative inclinations.

The dedicated workspace

As to the location and physical environment needed to nurture creativity, Kellogg notes that writers’ dedicated workspaces tend to involve solitude and quiet, although in youth – “the apprenticeship phase of a writer’s career” – almost any environment is workable, perhaps a hybrid function of youth’s high tolerance for distraction and the necessity of sharing space earlier in life when the luxuty of privacy is unaffordable.
Good news, then, for young writers currently facing (in the UK at least) the crippling effects of a conservative government seemingly hell set on forcing the young to bear the brunt of austerity measures, with lack of housing, huge debts and no jobs. Thank heavens for small mercies, eh?

But Kellogg points out that the key thing to remember, when it comes to these environments,  that there is little here to do with superstitious ritualization — an effort to summon the muse through the elaborate juju of putting everything in its right place — as cognitive cueing. Kellogg considers the usefulness of a special space used solely for writing, which cultivates an “environment that cues the desired behavior”:

“This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness. Once the writer’s attention turns to the ideas that pop into consciousness, the composing process flows again. Particular features of the environment may serve as specific prompts for retrieving, creating, and thinking.

For instance, a scene outside an office window, a painting hanging on the wall, or a plant sitting in the corner may become associated with thinking deeply about a particular text under development. Staring at the feature elicits knowledge representations bearing on the problem at hand.”

Flexibility of human thought

Yet for all these routines, insights and analysis, Kellogg notes astutely at the end of his book that the multitude of different practices and processes used by writers suggests more about us as human beings than any set guidance to creating the ‘perfect routine’ for nourishing creative thought.

In his closing chapter, he says: “The diversity in environments chosen by writers, from Proust’s cork-lined room to Sarraute’s Parisian cafe, suggests the flexibility of human thought. A person can think in any environment, though some locations become habitual for certain individuals. The key is to find an environment that allows concentrated absorption in the task and maximum exposure to retrieval cues that release relevant knowledge from long-term memory.”

Despite all the available strategies for ‘optimising creativity’, then, one truth – the ‘Capital T-Truth’ remains: there is no ideal cork-lined study with the perfectly angled chair rotated to the acceptable degree of inspiration creation. No matter how perfectly you position your desk clock, or sharpen your pencil, you cannot guarantee that Booker Prize.

Ultimately, what actually counts is sitting down, clocking in the hours and showing up day in and day out, without fail, without romance, and writing; writing; reading; reading; editing; editing; and writing. More than superstition, it’s about effort. And more than luck; it’s about love.

New anthology celebrates Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity

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In November 1915 Albert Einstein published his now world famous General Theory of Relativity. It introduced to physics new concepts, such as the curvature of space-time and black holes, and it made extraordinary predictions about the bending of light around massive objects. I Am Because You Are is a timely collection of new fiction and non-fiction from novelists and science writers, all inspired by the theme of Relativity. Each contributor treats the subject in their own unique way. The results are charming, witty, sometimes challenging but always accessible, presenting complex science themes in imaginative, easy-to-understand and highly entertaining ways.

Contributors include novelists Andrew Crumey, Dilys Rose and Neil Williamson, alongside popular science communicators Pedro Ferreira and Jo Dunkley. Edited by acclaimed, award-winning writers Pippa Goldschmidt and Tania Hershman, I Am Because You Are will be the perfect vehicle for both press and public to engage with this landmark centenary.

Michael Brooks, author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, said of the new anthology: “Sparkling with wit and originality, making a virtue out of the frail humanity of science, these stories perfectly reflect the breathtaking poetry of Einstein’s greatest theory. Enlightening, entertaining and sometimes moving, this collection is a beautiful celebration of relativity’s influence on our cultural landscape.”

This collection of fiction and non-fiction is perhaps the way to mark the hugely important 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And it’s publication by Freight Books taps into massive interest in popular science through imaginative writing.

About the editors

Tania Hershman spent 13 years as a science journalist, writing for publications such as WIRED and NewScientist, before becoming a full-time fiction writer. Her first story collection, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Her second, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, was published in May 2012 by Tangent Books. Tania’s stories and poems have won various prizes, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, been widely published and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Her debut poetry chapbook will be published in Feb 2016.

Pippa Goldschmidt’s novel The Falling Sky (Freight, 2012) was runner-up in the Dundee International Book Prize. She has a PhD in astronomy and worked as an astronomer. She has worked as a writer-in-residence at several academic institutions including most recently the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Germany. Her short stories, poetry and non-fiction have been broadcast on Radio 4 and published in a wide variety of publications including Gutter, New Writing Scotland and the New York Times. Her story collection The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space was published by Freight in May 2015.