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Resetting my writing expectations for myself, Asimov style

Writing has been hard these last few months. The interest is there, the stories continue to bubble and steam in my head, but the effort to take that next step and actually write has been lagging. The last week has seen a dramatic improvement – about 10k words so far this month – but it has been a struggle.

When I was younger (all of a year ago), time was easily manipulated. Balancing work, family, interests, and writing seemed trivial. Then I went from being able to write one to two thousand words a day to the struggle of writing any words. Despite the fact that I’ve had two sales in the last 12 months (and that’s two more than ever), I find my own self doubts creeping in and taking hold. It’s a self defeating cycle, I realize – I don’t feel like I’m writing enough or well enough, which causes me to not write, making the original statement true.

But I remember when it wasn’t always this way. I remember years where I wrote novels and short stories as if they were being transmitted from some future repository, to be deposited in my chicken scratch handwriting and poorly pecked typing. A writer I considered a big influence back then was Isaac Asimov, who wrote both some great (classic) science fiction as well as an overwhelming number of nonfiction books. Looking at how prolific he was, I could only assume he spent his entire writing career producing words.

I mention Asimov in particular because he’s shown up in a variety of places in my feeds lately. First, an older Zen Pencils popped up, drawn around a quote from Asimov about always being a learner. The same day, a Medium article by Charles Chu about “How to Never Run Out of Ideas Again” appeared in my feed. Wow, two Asimov quotes in a day? And then Alvaro Zinos-Amaro – who I was introduced to because of a blog post I made about Asimov’s reading habits – popped up with a link back to my blog on in his “Asimov Reads Again,” a more thoroughly researched and well written version of my notion.

Referenced a few times in the above was Asimov’s posthumously published It’s Been A Good Life. I tried reading this title once before, but at the time found it to be a weak compilation of snippets from other sources and said as much in my Goodreads review. Now older and wiser (I guess?), I recognize that most of my issues with the book are formatting. To put it simply, it was poorly digitized, and it shows. Sentences that in the print edition were bridged for space with –‘s are in the e-book smooshed back together again, with the — intact. Ack. The book itslef was intended as a collection of letters and commentary/quotes from Asimov, grouped together in chapters by subject. But what in the print edition would have been smooth breaks between fragments in each chapter are lost, making each chapter look like one continuous passage. That in turn makes the reading disjointed, since it’s hard to tell where one fragment ends and the next begins visually.

Mechanics aside, though, I have found there to be some good advice distilled in these fragments. Indeed, most of my previous assumptions have all been proven wrong. Asimov struggled to write, just like the rest of us. During the early part of his career, not only was rejection as often as success, but there are surprising gaps between stories. As I read this, I learned that he would go as long as a year between writing stories. I also found it reassuring that if he got stuck on a piece, he would set it aside and work on something else. His goal (at least later) was to always be writing, but not to let himself get stuck on a story he couldn’t write at that moment.

Lightbulbs went off. Not because I feel the need to model myself after Asimov, but because it was reassuring to see that even a giant went through the same pains. He didn’t give up, he just set it aside and came back later.

Now I find myself taking some of the same lessons I use at work and considering how to apply them to my writing. At work, if a problem is insurmountable, and I have no way of tackling it, I take a step back. I tackle something smaller and trivial, something I can manage without any effort. Partly to get it off my list, and partly because it lets my brain brood over the larger problem while my hands are busy typing at the mundane.

So too should my writing be, I think. If a story, or these days novel, is giving me trouble, don’t box the whole thing up and call it lost. Set it aside and work on something else while the brain does its magic. That brain has gotten me this far, I bet it can get me a little bit further if I let it.

Asimov on Creativity

This has been making the circles this week, but just in case your circles don’t include some of my circles, I thought I’d share. An article Asimov was hired to write on creativity for Allied Research Associates back in the late 50’s has recently surfaced. Reminiscent of other Asimov essays, I thought you all might enjoy.  Speaking from personal experience, it’s true that sometimes the best new ideas come as a result of sharing what’s already known with a small likeminded group. I’d just hate to think that means meetings are worth it.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

via Published for the First Time: a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity | MIT Technology Review.

I know I reference Asimov occasionally on here, and I’d like to (briefly) explain. It’s not that I think he is the penultimate in writers – he was as flawed as the rest of us. No, I admire both his proclivity as well as the breadth of his written works, combined with his simple, straightforward writing style. While a fantastic science fiction author, he didn’t let genre – or fiction – limit his writing. The article on creativity doesn’t bring much new to the subject, although it predates some of the group meeting styles I’m familiar with.

Isaac Asimov’s Reading List

Of late, I’ve become somewhat fascinated with the reading lists of folks I find interesting. We have Roosevelt’s reading list, and Hemingway‘s, and sites like Art of Manliness have even begun to make this a feature (only two so far, but I’m sure they’ll post more). We’ve always had lists like the Harvard bookshelf and the ten foot bookshelf, purportedly collecting all of the books a person should read. Even over at TED they’ve compiled a list of recommendations from their guests.

Library (Photo credit: Stewart)

So I was curious – was there such a list from Asimov? It’s no secret I venerate the man as an author. Prolific and knowledgeable, there is a succinctness to much of his writing that I appreciate. Of all the grand masters of Science Fiction, he is probably one of two that I hold in the highest regard, the other being the recently passed Ray Bradbury.

To be fair, as I recall (and I could be mistaken!) Asimov eschewed the reading list concept. As memory serves, he didn’t care for the idea of a single shelf of books being able to encapsulate everything you should read, preferring instead to explore and expand his horizons organically. And yet, there is the curiosity. What books did he read that helped influence the way he wrote? We know from his own autobiographies that he didn’t enjoy modern fiction (except for the mystery) and read primarily from pre-20th century writing.

To answer this question, I’ve looked in the following resources:

A Place That Makes Me Happy: My Library
A Place That Makes Me Happy: My Library (Photo credit: lyzadanger)

I realize that two sources do not a definitive list make, but oddly enough no one else has put together a list that I can find. The world abounds in reading lists of his work, reading order for his fiction, publication order, but seems to come short when it comes to the books that positively influenced him. I’ve put together the following list based on the books he mentions specifically in the above two sources, and from what we can infer because he in turn would write his own tomes on the subject. There were a few books that he specifically listed as having a negative impact, and I almost included them – after all, to know what someone didn’t like is as telling as what they did like – but in the end left them off because it goes against the nature of these lists. And so, the briefly put together list of recommended books from Isaac Asimov.

  • Greek mythology
  • The Illiad, by Homer – read as many times as he could check it out as a youth
  • The Odyssey, Homer
  • The Tempest, Shakespeare
  • Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare
  • Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare
  • Henry IV, Shakespeare
  • Hamlet, Shakespeare
  • King Lear, Shakespeare
  • The Three Musketeers, Dumas
  • The Jealous Gods, Gertrude Atherton
  • The Glory of the Purple, William Stearns Davis
  •  Hendrik van Loon’s book on history (no title given)
  • Victor Duruy‘s history of the world (no title given)
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Pickwick Papers, Dickens
  • Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens
  • The Bible

From his own publications, we can surmise  he also enjoyed:

  • Shakespeare in general
  • Don Juan, Byron
  • Gilbert and Sullivan
  • Paradise Lost, Milton
  • Sherlock Holmes

It is important to remember at this juncture that these are just the random titles he mentioned, mostly in chapter 8 of I, Asimov, and is not a comprehensive list. Still, it’s an interesting insight into the influences of a unarguably prolific writer.

Thanks to Jamie Rubin, who acted as expert in residence for me when I couldn’t think of where to look for one of the Asimov references in this post. Thanks, Jamie!

P.S. Yes, there’s a little extra bookshelf porn in this post. I wrote a post about books – I’m allowed a little dalliance every now and then 😉

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