How I Write - Conversation Transcript
Transcript of How I Write Conversation with Robert Sapolsky
Eric Roberts, who is a computer scientist, refuses to have a computer at home, has a religious vow never to watch TV, actually reads books—what happened to our stereotypes about computer scientists? And Mary Lou Roberts, who was in our history department, would write eighty pages until she would figure out what she was writing about, and is very used to the fact that she would toss out eighty pages and start at that point. It is hard to find a lot of other people who could bear the idea of throwing away eighty pages. She would also write with light rock playing in the background, and she hates light rock. And the reason is that because she hates light rock she doesn’t have to concentrate but it creates that white noise. And every half hour she would stop and play a computer game. That’s one.
Another kind of take on this: David Abernethy, who writing his last book that came out on the history of European colonialism all around the world, and from its very beginnings would take notes and then keep a log and have a kind of conversation with his notes. The nature of political science and the way he worked, he did not want to publish anything until he knew his entire argument for everything. Consequently, it took him fifteen years to write this book, and he got a reputation as being a lazy academic who got tenure and never wrote anything by the way that he worked, and he was working very hard, but only during the summers when he had the time. He couldn’t get any fellowships, any grants, because he didn’t have much of a CV because he wasn’t publishing—the way the system works. And he was very adamant in his style. I said, you know, I can suggest to you ways of… “No, no, it’s the way I work.” Now he’s emeritus, so he’s got time. But that’s just some of the examples. Diane Middlebrook, who gets up in the morning, loves writing biography, drinks six cups of coffee, reads a nice essay that inspires her in terms of language, and sits down and doesn’t get up until she’s done working, like a real nine-to-five type operation. When she gets stuck—gets blocked—she sits there until she’s unstuck. Other people go for walks; she will just sit there for hours at a time, fighting herself. So I can give you many, many examples. So the main thing that we have learned is that people are very, very different in how they approach the whole process of writing—revisions, everything. So, today we’re going to speak with Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology and neurological sciences, and one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, and a research associate with the institute of primate research museums in Kenya. He has received a MacArthur fellowship and wonderful praise for the books that he’s written—in addition to his regular scientific writing for the scientific community—for the broader intellectual community. So, these books include Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers—and I told him I wouldn’t get ulcers because I would be the zebra that gets eaten by the lion—The Trouble with Testosterone and Essays on Biology, and A Primate's Memoir, a book I found that reminded me of the same pleasure I had reading Jules Vernes’ Mysterious Island in eighth grade. I was so drawn in by the book that it was just pure pleasure of trying to find out what was going to happen in the book. And he’s written in many magazines. Later on this quarter we’ll be hearing from George Fredrickson, one of the most esteemed American history professors, and Penelope Eckard, in linguistics and the director of feminist studies, so very different types of fields. And this is co-sponsored by undergraduate research programs and Stanford Writing Center. Now, welcome, and the way that I generally begin is that I have a conversation for part of the time, and then open it up to the floor to ask any kinds of questions of Professor Sapolsky about his writing, about writing, any concerns or issues about writing, anything that you want—and I suppose anything about primates as well, but really we’re focusing on writing. And the way that we generally begin is, I’d like to ask you, first of all is there anything that you wanted to just raise yourself before I get going?
RS: Well, let’s see, this ranks as a fairly bizarre setting. You know, I'm basically a scientist; I don't really think of myself as a writer and it’s something that I need to discipline myself to do less of, because it is much easier for me than doing the science a lot of the time, and just as much quickness. “Oh Christ,” says half the English majors in here or something. So, I definitely don’t think of myself as a writer. And just as a measure of that, I've been here on campus for fifteen years and not only have I never set foot in the English department before, I could not have told you where it was. So, I'm not terribly in tune to this stuff, and it is also striking me as, like, I am really up a creek here on the next hour if I have to come up with a philosophy of how you do a rewrite here. So I’m a scientist who writes now and then. So I start off with my, like, don’t hurt me if I don’t make sense.
HO: We don’t, I mean, I don't expect a philosophy of writing. I mean, that would be incredible, but we already have an interesting dynamic: you actually enjoy writing.
RS: That’s true.
HO: Where did that come from? I mean, did you begin writing for school – all of a sudden in third grade you got this delight?
HO: OK, when did it happen?
RS: 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.
HO: So it was in some ways an emotional protection racket. I mean, you were able to keep yourself attached to the world that way.
RS: Yeah, with a weird sort of time delay. Yeah, it did sort of…if you sent enough letters to people they would feel guilty and eventually write back to you. That’s what the weird thing is. It’s a whole Peace Corps dynamic.
HO: Well, it’s interesting, though. Because, you said, the same incident you would write it several different times. It wouldn’t be identical?
RS: No, I would get incredibly bored with the damn thing and would thus started editing and make it more concise, and all of that, and you could sort of see it shrinking until it was half an aerogram, and then I would have to come up with something else to say. So I think just sort of in passing it kind of forced me to start editing.
HO: And so, yeah, you started editing and went through a process of revision actually forced by duplication…
HO: …rather than the need to get it right. Just the need to do it again.
RS: And the need to get it shorter and get out of there.
HO: Yeah, when did this then, you know, kind of develop into an interest—and I want to talk about the difference between scientific writing and writing for the broader public—but, you know, how then did your writing develop?
RS: Umm…I guess it remained very much an outgrowth of the field work stuff: you know, all throughout, sort of, from like the late 70s to early 90s I was spending like four months a year out in the field, making the most of the time by myself, so sort of the writing stuff remained sort of extremely critical, and it just kind of became rhythm, and sort of volumes of journals from out in the field whereas I can’t do anything remotely like that out here. And it just become sort of a habitual thing out there, and slowly started doing stuff like bringing subjects I had been thinking about during the year here and didn’t have two minutes to concentrate on, would bring out there, and so would have a lot more unstructured time to work on it and just kind of slid into that. I think, mid-grad school I sent what in retrospective was a extremely embarrassing article into Psychology Today on my baboon work, which they took—which says something or other—and then sort of like a year's delay I then sent something to Discover magazine, which was sort of ranting about an area that I knew something about. And there was this sort of transition that as I got a few more of these out, I started to be able to write about stuff that I knew absolutely nothing about and had no, like, had no grounds having any opinions on, and then they would start asking me to have some, like, unfounded opinion on something, which I would gladly oblige and it just sort of started spreading out from there.
HO: So, for one thing, all the journals, you started writing by hand, right? No computer, no typewriter.
RS: Eventually I got this really clunky journalist's typewriter, from I don’t know exactly where. It’s all gummed up with dust and there’s bugs in all the keys and stuff. You know, on an actual typewriter I can type somewhat effectively; with this, and like the ribbon would get bleached out in the sun, and you couldn’t write, but I would come back at the end of the season with scads of like stains on normal pieces of paper.
HO: Typed and handwritten. And when you’re typing and handwriting in a journal-type form do you go back and do some revision and concision and that or do you just plow ahead?
RS: I tend to do the plow through, and then the edit afterward.
HO: Alright, it sounds like there was a key element of this in what you said is lots of unstructured free time.
RS: Yeah, a huge, huge issue. I’m frantically type A the rest of the year here, and out there things are extremely unstructured and open. There’s just absolutely nothing to do other than take a blood sample from a baboon once every forty-five minutes or so. So much less, much less structured time. What's been a big challenge is, sort of adulthood has intervened, and I spend, like, maybe a month out in the field each year now at best. So trying to figure out how to do my writing sitting in a style out there sort of sitting here instead. That’s been relatively hard to figure out.
HO: You only have so much free, unstructured time. When you worked on, let’s say, this book came first, right? So you had another book before this one, right?
RS: Umm...this very technical biology monograph that’s like put happy smiles on the faces of the three people on earth who’ve read it. [laughter] Mostly ignored.
HO: OK, well how did you find the time and how did you structure your work to be able to—and did it change over the course of the different types of book?
RS: Umm…I think probably it came from the times…I live up in San Francisco, so I spend two hours a day on Caltrain, so I do a big percentage of my writing there and the phone’s not going to ring and nobody’s going to come in to ask me for a med school recommendation, and conductors leave me alone or whatever so that’s, that’s where I do my writing. And it’s actually gotten amazingly addictive. It’s a very, you know…anyone who does science, like nothing ever works when you’re doing science and when it works it takes two and a half years to find out that it’s worked. It’s a very different sort of metabolic rate than the writing stuff, where like you can find out in the course of an hour if this paragraph pleases you or not. It’s like teaching, sort of; it’s much faster. So, sort of, if you’re spending most of your time in the science, where it’s this very holding your breath process. The writing stuff just has much faster reinforcement rates, and so it’s real addictive.
HO: And you’re writing on the train with a laptop?
HO: So how is then the experience versus the pushing along with the journal working with a laptop?
RS: You know, actually, none of the writing—the editing sort of out in the field I would do by hand—but the actually writing would be on the clunky typewriter. It would sort of go fast enough that it…I was not constrained to the speed of getting it down on paper; so a computer has not been a big transition.
HO: So it’s basically the same as the typewriter for you. Because it sounds like you’re doing a lot of the revision before you get to the keyboard? Looking at a draft and there’s…
RS: Stuff tends to come out fast. So I don’t spend a lot of time trying to get a phrase right. That will come later. So sort of having a fast machine in some sort really helps.
HO: Where do you get ideas for what you want to write about? I mean, how do they come to you? Clearly not on the train because you are writing on the train.
RS: Well, most of my writing is—sort of most of my non-science writing—are essays and wind up in various magazines in either science magazines for non-scientists like Natural History or Scientific American or whatever, or, like, doing science in non-science venues, the New Yorker or places like that, so it’s a limited length that I have to produce. And typically what happens is, you know, I am constantly reading about, just hopping around, subjects all over the place. I read very broadly and very shallowly science outside my own area. So just a huge array of areas that I’m sort of tapping into and just read, like, crappy contemporary culture type stuff. I'm completely obsessed with People magazine; it’s the most fabulous source of material for science articles. And it just…
HO: Explain that. I can see the primate research, but…
RS: 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. So what tends to be is I’ll just be reading along and stumble into something or other that’s like really quirky and bizarre and will spend the next two months just obsessing over it and just reading everything possible. Like I just sent a piece into the New Yorker that they took, which was prompted by this, like, half-page long piece in a neurology journal entitled 'Why we can't tickle ourselves?'. It’s actually extremely interesting and there’s, like, a scientific explanation, and these people had actually like done experiments with a tickle machine where they showed what parameters you need to modify so that people can now tickle themselves. And another group picked up on this and discovered a subset of schizophrenics who could tickle themselves. So like this was just irresistible so I went berserk with this for about two months and wrote up something and downloaded it and—sort of my wife was finally pleased that I would stop like orating at her about ticking and all that—and sort of got it out of my system and then haven’t thought about it since. And then just stumble into the next weird, quirky thing.
HO: Now, you said orating to your wife: do you read what you write out loud?
RS: No. I just like bore her by obsessing over it.
HO: And you don't go through a complicated revision process?
RS: I think probably less than most people who are like trained, serious writers.
HO: Let me, first of all, you’re a trained, serious writer. You do your own training, and serious stuff. The other side is you take complicated scientific ideas and you’re able to explain them in this step-by-step kind of way that make it accessible to people who aren't familiar with the science. How do you do that?
RS: Umm…well this is going to sound silly, but I was actually not terribly well-trained as a scientist in college; I was much more of the social science type, so I actually never took any chemistry or physics in college and don't have a very good fundamental grounding. So I am easily panicked in my science and I think thus I can easily imagine more readily than most people in my position how somebody else can be. I think sort of pedagogically where that came about: during grad school I wound up in a grad school that didn’t have an undergraduate college—it was just a research institute—so we didn't have to do the TAing stuff that grad students do here, and thought that was probably a bad thing sort of professionally, so I figured out a way to sneak off and moonlight, I was in New York at a place called The New School for Social Research, where they kind of hired me to moonlight on the side, and it like totally violated my fellowship and I had to like sneak off out the back way from my university and stuff. And right around time there was this fashion institute in New York called Parsons School of Design that had just lost their academic accreditation—which it turned out to be, like, decades after that probably should have happened—and they decided, they went out and like shut out all their tenured non-design faculty and they forced their students to go over to The New School to take their courses. And there was a science requirement and I was like offered one of the two science courses at the New School, so I would get these classes full of these unbelievably hostile, phobic, teeny-bopper textile designers, and this forced an enormous pressure to be clear, and to have a good sense as to when people are about to go berserk with too many terms and stuff and like when you have to stop and give an anecdote or metaphor or something, so I think in retrospect it was actually very good training. I know every one of those people is now a chief of neurosurgery at a major medical center.
HO: So, it’s the training of being able to explain things to people and then the impulse that you had initially, in some ways, to try to do so, to be able to break it down in that kind of way. How did you feel, for example—in all of your books—but actually, for example, in A Primate’s Memoir, you incorporate actually a great deal of wit and irony, just from conversation? Right?
RS: I know that part.
HO: How did you design, for example, that book, because there’s a chronology but it’s also not a chronology. You are always going back and forth, in terms of description of the baboon society. And, you know, various instances grow step-by-step. Did you write, like, one anecdote and then another anecdote, and then piece it together, or did you see it as a flow when you were doing it?
RS: Yeah, um, most of my other books have each taken about two years to write and the Primate's Memoir book took twelve years.
RS: I think one of the reasons for that was I really could only work on it in Kenya. So I would have to wait for the summers, that, I just had to just get into the right state of mind for it. Whereas with the other ones, you know, I could write in, like, sitting in the airport waiting for a flight, and you know I have a very up and down time. So about eight years into it I just got with the others, who were this whole stack of stories, and sent it off to couple of my editors, and they informed me this was, like, not remotely ready yet, and it needed a chronology and had no sense of an overall shape to it. And that took about four years to sort of figure out in there. And initially, eventually—this is pathetic—but eventually it reached a point of having this big flow chart of stories that are set in particular periods and can’t be moved, and stories that are serious stories and monster stories, and long ones and short ones. And I went through all these, like, really deep sort of algorithms for how to like satisfy as many of these constraints as possible, and each of the four sections of the book starts with a chapter about the baboons. And then I actually went through this very mechanical algorithm of listing all the baboons, where they were introduced at which point, making in each chapter there was a reference back to somebody so that sort of the readers would be able to keep the thread of what’s going on with the baboons throughout. So I had this whole, like, mechanical structure which was much more mechanical than anything I had ever done in my science writing, and kind of shoe-horned everything into it, and it kind of worked.
HO: Sounds like the basic composition paper experience for lots of students: making this kind of diagram and putting things and rearranging things, but on a grander scale. But this came after you had written quite a bit?
HO: So you’ve written all of it, was then…?
RS: And it was then a matter of getting the transitions with the new form and all the things.
HO: Right so…and then rearranging it in that way. Did you paste up whole, like, here’s a section and this section and maybe did you actually physically do it in that way, or…
RS: No, it was just sort of moving pieces around and…
HO: So you had it in different files or whatever or literally file folders or you have a computer type thing to be able to arrange it in that way. Did you have an editor at the publishers who besides giving that first feedback—this isn’t right, there needs to be more?
HO: Did they do any copy editing?
RS: Actually a small amount. An odd thing with my books is that in all of them I’ve always, I haven’t let anybody see them until they were done, except sort of sending the early draft to these couple of previous editors. So, I've never done the, like, sending in a thirty-page proposal and hoping to get a big advance, and they start harassing you about when you’re getting it done. Just because I decided long ago, you know, I am a scientist, this writing stuff is a hobby, and I’m never going to be in a position where I’ve, like, inadvertently gone and committed myself to write some book and the clock is ticking and I, like, really need to do my lab work instead; so I never send it to an agent or any publisher until it is done. So I've actually never worked with an editor going back and forth on a piece. The only exception I ever had—and likewise with the magazine pieces that I do where they always get pissed off at me because they much prefer somebody to come in and say “I’m thinking of doing a piece on X, are you guys interested?” and, like, the few times they’ve come to me and go “will you agree to something?”, I’ve kind of hated it. And so it leads to this anxiety because I’ve got a deadline. So I always send stuff in when it’s finished. The only time I’ve ever worked heavily with an editor was this piece I had in The New Yorker, like, five years ago which wound up being on why we get less and less interested in novelty as we get older, we’re less open to certain cultural experience, and it was prompted by this guy that I working as a secretary who just graduated as an English major and needed to make money for a couple years before going off to English grad school and starving, so he hung out for a couple years, and he was irritating the crap out of me because he was great at his work, but he was, like, pathologically open to new experience. He was sitting out in the office out there, and everyday he’s listening to a different style of music each day, like radically, like contemporary rock and then Gregorian chants and these irritating wedding songs and stuff like that. And he would come in, one day—he like a beard and long hair—and one Monday morning he comes in, he’s shaved everything off because he wants to see if people would relate to him differently that way. Like, he would just like spend the whole weekend at, like, a festival of, like, twenty back-to-back Indian movie musicals just because he had never seen one and thought that would be interesting. And he was just like totally depressing me, because I was sitting there having, like, not done anything new in about fifteen years, and this prompted this whole thing. So I started off the piece basically with he had prompted this and how irritating this was, and this editor at the New Yorker who was, like, the most frightening thing I had ever dealt with, because this is the image of the most knowledgeable, scholarly person on earth. In any subject that comes up, he’s read four books on it, including all of my areas of science, which he knows much better than me and we would have these, like two hour phone conversations about, like, three sentences in there, and this was completely, like, novel for me, and I realized at some point, this guy who was working for me—his name was Paul—and at some point I was making some reference back to him at the beginning and something with the tone was wrong and I had this two hour conversation and like three-quarters of the way through, he says, “The trouble is, the thing that’s the core here, is Paul doesn't want to grow up and be you, and you know that and it hurts you.” This is like, I almost burst into tears. It was like I was having these therapy sessions. And he was right. Paul had betrayed me because he didn’t want to grow up and be like me. And I like immediately had to call up Paul and, like, relate this to him, and this was the case, that in fact he had no desire to ever be, like, this narrow. And, it immediately cleared up this one sentence. And this was like the only I've ever had the agonizing over, the editor keeping me from becoming an alcoholic by telling me the unresolved issue. So like that one time, and I’ve been scared of this guy ever since and never have dealt with him again.
HO: Most experiences with editors are more on the level of “rewrite this.”
RS: This paragraph isn’t clearing up or can you put the lead for the story a couple of paragraphs up.
HO: I mean, a lot of writers, I mean literary writers, would love to have an editor like that, someone who really interacted with the whole essence of what you’re trying to do.
RS: I’m so frightened of this man.
HO: But, you know, with some of the things that you’ve said, lead me to think, first of all, you don't like writing for deadlines, right?
RS: Yes, I won’t do it.
HO: But you don’t have any problem getting yourself to write, actually, as long as there isn’t a deadline, right?
RS: Yeah, and I have to actively discipline myself from not spending too much time on the writing; it's, just, it’s fun; it’s easy.
HO: Yes, we don't want to have fun, do we? [laughter]
HO: But you have other things to do.
RS: Yeah, and, you know, really some of you do this for a living and, like, you probably, like doing neurochemistry would be a great hobby on the side. You know, the science stuff is incredibly slow, and it never works, and if screw up people, like, lose their jobs in your lab and things like that; and this is just, you read some quirky article and you can just call up people and find what neato stuff they’re doing and you just package it, and, like, you get it done and it’s gone and you never think about it again. And your pushing back the edges of science don’t depend on it. And it is just so much more relaxed than the science stuff. Yeah, so I have to actively discipline myself from not doing too much.
HO: Uh-huh. It’s actually, you know, those who really aspire to be literary writers, get a job that’s very anxiety producing. And then you’ll be just fine with the writing.
RS: You just got to balance it.
HO: And now, so consequently, also, you don’t get stuck.
RS: Now and then, but basically not. I find, I have an incredibly easy time getting pieces started; I can never figure out how to end them, and that’s—the last paragraph I sort of obsess about—but that’s the only thing that gets me gummed up where I go and it’s not obvious. And I try a couple of really clunky things and that’s really about the only element that just doesn’t seem to flow.
HO: Do you ever show people—friends or something—something in progress?
HO: Oh, ok.
RS: And I think it is still part of this sort of credibility thing and it just sort of seems silly, if like I'm a scientist, and, “Oh, I’ve got a recent piece that I’ve been working.” It just sort of seems ridiculous, so I sort of just like firmly send it off to one of these magazine and that sort of thing. I actually have a whole section of my CV, where I was like too embarrassed to have some of these articles listed with the regular part of my CV, so I have a whole section that I call “pieces in embarrassing places”—um, with like GQ-type of piece that I am particularly by this, Men’s Health, and so forth. Scientists are not supposed to do stuff like that.
HO: Well, you know, it seems like, actually, well, in another interview perhaps, in another context it would be, you know, how does this affect your science, right? But it seems from the point of view of writing, the fact that this writing is fun, not essential, furtive, perhaps even silly, allows you to be a good writer.
RS: It certainly takes the pressure off; there’s no neurosis involved because I just save that for the science. It’s just relaxing, and it’s relaxing in a sense of, like, many of the pieces are subjects where it’s not just sort of neato getting engrossed in that, um, like, what a weird, quirky thing to write about, but all the pieces have some sort of goal or some sort of angle. I've got this whole cranky obsession with disliking genetic explanations for behavior, and think that that’s really dangerous stuff and has had some sort of disastrous historical consequences. So I sort of get on my high-horse about that, so there’s some angles with that. Or other pieces that I kind of quite disturbing, but it’s fun to just sort of simmer in that for a while. After my first child was born, my son, who’s six now, like a week later, I suddenly found there’s like psychiatric disorder that I have never found interesting in the slightest, called Munchausen's-By-Proxy, which is this incredibly disturbing disease. Munchausen's disease is where people fake medical symptoms in themselves in order to get medical care. And it’s got nothing to do with getting out of work or insurance fraud, it’s just there’s something, like, neurotic and sensual about these people, getting medical care to the point that they will fabricate symptoms to get ten rounds of surgery, they will get limbs amputated. There’s a technical term for people with a psychiatric disorder of people who imagine themselves as not having limbs and will manipulate things, will like pull off industial to get, so this is Munchausen's. Munchausen's-By-Proxy is when a parent does it to their child, and generates symptoms. This is not the coming and saying, “Oh, every night my baby coughs from ten to eleven.” This is feeding your child poison, injecting you child with feces, like unbelievable stuff. And a week after my son was born this disease I had vaguely known about for years and hadn’t given a thought to suddenly struck me as the most horrifying disease I had ever heard of I my life, and I spent the next six months just reading everything there is out there on the subject and wrote a long piece on it for The Sciences, which was like, they had to force me to edit out some of sections because the writing was just too aggressive and too, like, incredibly emotionally in a froth about this thing, where it was great…it was great, I was, like, wildly upset about this. I would just, like, read these case reports that were nightmarish things. And packaging this whole up into one of the longer pieces I have ever written it was spectacularly cathartic. So, like, that was fun in a strange definition of fun.
HO: Well, it was cathartic. You know, one week after your child is born, it’s a way of, kind of very concrete in a writing kind of way of dealing with your anxieties, not only anxieties about the child but maybe even anxieties about yourself, and being with a child and to investigate this sort of thing. Look I want to open this up for everyone here to join the conversation. I also want to pass these flyers around for the other “How I Write” events. So if you can just pass it around while I’m doing this.
A: My question is: do you ever use quotes to start a chapter; and if so, how do you find the quotes that you use?
RS: Umm…yeah, I do sometimes. I actually just finished writing a chapter for a textbook on what stress has to do with memories where I was supposed address disorder for a psychiatry textbook, and I actually started off with a Faulkner quote, which is “Not only is the past not dead, the past isn't even past” (where I didn’t get the wording exactly). And, you know, this is pretty cool, and already I heard back from the editor of the text, and I’ve actually never read a word of Faulkner in my life. It’s just I couldn’t possibly understand it and this is way too boring and I never have time for it. So, you know, I just constantly have supplies of this stuff, and I just frantically take notes on every little sort of thing and sort of everything eventually gets used. And somewhere along the way, somewhere around the second edition of the Zebras book, where my books tend to have lots and lots of trivia in them, and sort of cultural history trivia stuff—that I actually started getting a research assistant who does library stuff for me. Like, I've got a piece right now in Discover magazine with Paul Ehrlich talking about why it is that we like stuff that’s rare. Why the fact that something is the last something on Earth is appealing to us, framing it in the context of conservation of what winds of happening is if you control something that’s rare, like the Serengeti, and you go piss of it away to get immediate profits, the remaining half is at least twice as valuable because people will pay that much more because this is the last whatever on Earth. And so we just started it off with just sort of this museums that have weirdo rare stuff in the world. And, in fact, there's this museum in Minnesota that’s a zoo of like bizarre medical devices that eight thousand people a year come to make them see their prostate warmer and things like that. And, like, there’s some museum in Amarillo, Texas that has a sculpture of Jefferson Davies made out of six hundred deer antlers, and people fight to get in to see this stuff. And so this would be the sort of thing where I would say to like some obsessive, factoid research assistant who’s great at this stuff, “Go and find out some weirdo stuff in museums all across the United States,” and they’ll come back with a long list of these things. So I’m heavily dependent on that right now.
A: Is there any neurological theory of narrative, and why story is so appealing to human beings?
RS: Oh Christ, let me just first get a sense of grounding here. Are you in the English department?
A: No, I'm a writer.
RS: OK… I just want to see like, how far this is from where I’m coming from. Never in my entire life would I consider using a sentence in which I would say, “Is there a neurobiology to story” instead of “to how you write stories” or “how people like read stories” or something with a ‘s’ at the end. The whole notion of, like, “story” clearly puts in some academic realm that’s outside my experience. Umm…but in terms of that, there's a whole sort of tradition that some people, biological anthropologists, looked at, like, ritual and stuff in different societies, and all societies get into ritual. And somewhere in there they drag in oral tradition so you can see where I’m flailing to try to connect this to literature. And how they entrain rhythms in the brain, and the brain finds rhythmic patterns of action potentials to be reinforcing and this is basically gibberish; there’s like no neurological basis for that. No doubt there is some neurological basis for, like, why people like stories and why every culture comes up with them. But we're centuries away from having any understanding of that.
A: My question is: You’ve been in the New Yorker and magazines like that and I feel like whatever questions the intellectual community is going after, your science writing has come just as close as any of them to answering. And so my question is, kind of, how does science fit into that broad intellectual community? And it seems like, with you and Oliver Sacks, the best writing that applies to general intellectual stuff is neurology; and could you talk about that a little?
RS: I should point out, this guy was in my class last quarter, so he’s obviously still in the habit of trying to make me feel good, in terms of getting a grade. I agree, I the brain stuff is the most interesting, and sort of Oliver Sacks has like mobs of the world’s, like, great neurological patients. No, actually he’s got this whole franchise by now that no one would dream of having a quirky neurological patient by now without sending them to him first. So he just gets his next books just written for him. It’s this self-perpetuating. You know, I could, obviously the temptation here is to go through a whole song and dance about how not only science but also my subdiscipline of science and in particular the version we were working on last Tuesday afternoon in my lab is going to solve the following list of world problems. Because we all do that sort of thing, especially when we’re trying to get funded. Science is useful for some of this stuff; science has also done spectacularly destructive things in its history, in terms of when ideologues have grabbed onto science and many cases have been scientists themselves who have been the ideologues and have done some incredibly destructive things. Most of the time what science comes up it is completely perpendicular to anything that does either any good or any harm to society; why we can't tickle ourselves is great, but this is not really terribly relevant to the human predicament. But, you know, now and then it comes up with some stuff. And the realms that strike me as most important to that is the stuff having to do with brain, and behavior, and who we are as individuals. And, not to sort of run off into a tirade with this, but there’s neurological disorders where you have a certain epileptic seizure for 30 seconds once every 6 months and it changes your level of religiosity the rest of your life. There are neurological disorders due to a single gene’s mutation where somewhere in your mid-forties to abandon your family, go run around, get drunk brawling, and have lots of affairs; and two or three years later you’re incapacitated in a neurology ward—because early-on this disease wipes out the part of your cortex that keeps you from doing things you think about but would never actually want to do. And twenty five percent of people on death row have a type kind of neurological injury to that same part of the brain that controls impulsivity. You know, this plays out into who we are, who we incarcerate, how we make judgments, how we have our sense of self-definition, blah, blah, blah; it’s incredibly pertinent to making sense of that stuff. Most people don’t want to go anywhere near science and shouldn’t be forced to.
A: Well then, should there be more scientists who do this?
RS: If they are writing about something interesting that’s accessible, sure, why not?
A: As a teacher, as someone who often teaches writing, I want to thank you. You’ve given lots of great advice to teachers as well as students who are here today. From my own experience as a writer who also enjoyed writing, I find that I do enjoy talking about my writing if not showing it to other people. And I’m intrigued by one little moment in your interview when you said you orate to your wife, right, and yet you don't show to anyone in advance. And I am wondering if, as is true for many of my students and myself as well, do you ever work things out by speaking it out? And you’re obviously such a verbal person; these orations, do you ever work out ideas by talking about them?
RS: Umm…rarely; mostly I just sort of download the factoids to my wife, sort of the Munchhausen’s-By-Proxy sort of, every night tortured her with the seventeen reports I had found. She’s in there just sort of in the aftermath, glowing in motherhood, and I just sort of, “Look at this, this is important here.” Umm…rarely, not really. I pace a lot.
A: Then let me refine my question. Is dialogue ever useful, you orate, you rant? Does she ever ask, you know, the question that crystallizes something or sends you off on a fruitful direction?
RS: Yeah, she is very aggressive and skeptical. And challenges all my assumptions and so that’s a very good thing. She is also a clinical psychologist and understands human behavior far more than I do. Most of what I come up as explanations turn out to be really a crock, and she challenges them pretty effectively. And so, yeah, definitely getting lots of feedback there, but it’s turning into the writing stage I just kind of burn right through it.
A: Thank you.
A: Along the same lines as Valerie was asking, does an imagined audience play a part in how you write and how you explain things? And that experience as a TA was useful and I have read Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, and I honestly never would have picked it up because I’m on the literary side but a scientist friend of mine said, “You have this; it’s great”. And I enjoyed it very much and it was very clear, but it’s something that I would just never pick up because it was actually, I think, there in the self-help part, and for me that usually has a very bad connotation of, like, getting in touch with my inner zebra, which is something I have no desire to do. But, so, do you really think about, what is going to be attractive about my book to a reader, and how is a reader going to pick up this book at the bookstore, and does that form a part of how you write and eventually, sort of, figure a title and the overall presentation of your book?
RS: Yeah, definitely. By the way I should note here that I fought tooth-and-nail to get the book not in the self-help section, but my publisher thought that would do wonders for sales, which apparently it does. No, I’m not going to do that. I don't so much think of a reading audience as much a lecture audience just because I do tons and tons of lecturing. So the Zebra book grew out of, I do these continuing medical education lectures for nurses and psychologists, where it’s this all-day six hour lecture, that I do this whole day course on stress and disease. And the Zebra book directly came out of it. But I think I am very frequently thinking of, sort of, lecture audiences. And sort of pertinent to that, I’ve got two pieces that I’ve written that I wrote in this sort of, I don’t know what, adjective, I was in a very agitated state a couple of weeks after my father died where for one thing, it was extremely instructive that if that had happened ten years earlier—I had been a concert pianist up through college—that I would have been playing the piano at that point. Instead, the clearest evidence that the transition had occurred emotionally was that I was writing instead and it was serving its purpose. Um, but sort of during the final stretch when he was kind of falling apart and off to the hospital and that I found just as a sheer coping mechanism that I was just obsessively distancing all it and turning it into lectures. How would I lecture about this subject? OK, here’s the variables that they don’t understanding and that goddamn doctor who’s not doing anything, who’s unwilling to make the blah, blah. But just turning it all into lectures triggered this distancing mechanism, but where it definitely served a purpose emotionally afterward. So, yeah, that’s definitely the case.
A: Though you probably wouldn’t agree that you meant to make yourself so interesting, you did. And I was really struck from the beginning how you protested too much. You know, “I’m not a writer,” that’s the first thing you said. “I’m not a writer; I’m a scientist”. And it became so abundantly clear you are so open about your process, that you are not only a writer and you don't just do it to relax—you know, you could play golf for that or something—but you are a writer who really needs to write. And you described some need that propelled you into it from the beginning, still does, and you use words like “obsessive” or “addictive”. And it fulfills all kinds of great needs, so I’d like it—this is really an observation, but maybe the last thing will be a question—so, would you agree—after my little presentation—that you’re not only a writer but an artist? That was the impression I had.
RS: Yeah, right, I'm really going to say yes to that! You know, like a year ago I had this bizarre day where I was in a scientific conference up in San Francisco like all day, and then in the evening I had this like completely sort of different experience, in that this Bay Area Book Reviewers club or association or something or other was having an annual book awards thing
HO: Bay Area Book Reviewers Awards by the Independent Book Sellers Association.
RS: Yeah. So they sort of have this evening thing in the library up in San Francisco, this whole reception thing, and I went to it. And so I had spent the whole day at a science conference and I then spent the evening with all of these obviously writers and the contrast was just unbelievable. It just so clearly, you know, C. P. Snow and two cultures and all of that, which probably is a measure of…oh, C. P. Snow was a physicist who turned into a writer who had some famous essay or lecture in the fifties about how we’re getting two cultures—the humanities and the sciences—sort of that’s another obligatory quote; I’ve never actually read C.P. Snow. It was simply because all of these writers had so many more facial expressions than scientists, they wore clothes that had primary colors in them, they would like touch your upper arm when they spoke to you and things like that that a scientist doesn’t do. It was clearly like just a very different world. So, you know, I am dependent on this and all of that, but it seems like a very different world.
A: When you write something for an educational purpose—and I guess you would try to make it simple with fewer concepts so people’s eyes don’t start to glaze over—do you think you lose something versus sort of more traditionally serious scientific work? Do you get less information across? Is it more cartoonish in some sense?
RS: That depends on heavily on whether you’re a fellow scientist or not. 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. But I had this that works—I think it’s one of the pieces that I like the most that I’ve done—where like three years ago People magazine had their annual issue of fifty most beautiful people in the world, while I avidly read for months at a time. And what they do is they have sort of a theme each year. And that year their theme was “nature or nurture, what explains the secrets of the fifty most beautiful people on Earth?” And they asked each one of these people where they thought their beauty came from. This was like to die for, you could not have asked for more ludicrous, fabulous stuff. And the people who like had these utterly bizarre environmentalist stances. What’s his name, Ben Affleck said it’s all due to his cosmetic dentistry. This was his explanation. And then the other extreme: Gwyneth Paltrow had her grandfather come in and says, “She was like this from birth,” which makes sense of probably why the two of them didn't stay together as a pair, and I actually know that because if People magazine didn’t write it, I’d have no idea who these people are. And this was like perfect, and I wound up writing this very sarcastic piece about the fifty most beautiful people in the world debate the nature-nurture question. And sort of they set it up so that it’s obviously ludicrous, and there was like one person in there who came up with what’s accepted as the scientific, like, resolution to that, which is, genes affect how you interact with the environment and the environment affects how you interact with your genes, which was some singer who only had one name—and I can’t even remember who it is anymore. But her mother was explaining, “It's all due to her cosmetics’ skill”—OK, this sounds like a fairly environmentalist—and then she says “she was just born knowing how to put on make-up!” A gene-environment interaction—this is exactly! And said this is great, can you believe this, I think this is fabulous, too bad people can't think about this when they think about what genes have to do with IQ or aggression or criminality, which was the last sentence of the piece. So, you know, hopefully it serves a purpose, but it has to be simplified and lots of scientists will get on you for it.
HO: Let me follow up just briefly on that, which is: has your scientific reputation been jeopardized by writing for the broader audience? I mean, but you haven’t been saying that.
RS: Um, I am convinced that this is the case, but this is probably just my rationalizing every time I get a crappy grant score. Every now and then I do get evidence that this is the case. Because all I have to do—with science stuff what you do is write a paper, and you send it in to some professional journal and it’s reviewed anonymously. And this is this amazing dis-inhibitory process that allows people to be just total shits to each other in this business, and it’s really like brutal. And I am guaranteed if in some paper of mine—with one that I’ve written instead of obviously if someone in my lab reporting primary data with sort of a large review paper—all I need is like one incoherent sentence in there, and there is going to be a snotty comment, “Boy, for someone who publishes in this and that, that was sure incoherent; I have no idea what you’re saying!”
HO: You mean, anonymous in the sense of you don’t know who they, but they know who you are.
RS: They know who I am. So it’s a really good realm for settling scores, and undermining stuff. It’s a very childish arena of science.
HO: One last question because we’re going to finish up.
A: I read that New Yorker article five years ago and was wondering what effect that revelation that you came to the conclusion about had on your life. Do you listen to new music and eat sushi?
RS: Um, It’s had no impact whatsoever. And it reflects very much the fact that I’m like this expert on stress and stress-related disease and how it’s bad for you. And I’m like unbelievably stressed; all it means is like I can give you very detailed explanations for why I’m going to get a coronary. You know, it doesn’t translate into you know…
A: It sounds like you were resolving at the end of that.
RS: I was, I was sort of laboring to come up with pretty, pretty inept reasons for why this in fact was a good thing, and sort of actually it’s had no impact whatsoever. As the purpose of writing: to keep it at a distance.
HO: Ah-hah. Well, I want to thank you very much for coming.
RS: Thank you.
HO: Please, everyone. [Applause] I just want to say if you ever do get “Saganized,” there is the rest of the universe, billions and billions of people who would appreciate reading the things that you write. Thanks a lot.