Monday, September 10, 2012

Where Good Ideas Come From

In case you haven't heard of Steven Johnson's book (Where Good Ideas Come From), the above video will get you started.

Here's a rough overview of some key ideas from the book:

1. The "adjacent possible": An inventor generally uses components that exist in the immediate environment, and these are sometimes conveniently adapted for non-obvious uses. Gutenberg used a wine press for his first printing press, for example.

2. "Liquid networks" and connectivity: Large cities, and now the Internet, make it possible for loose, informal networks to form, and these tend to enable discoveries.

3. The slow hunch: It can take years for a hunch to blossom into a full-blown invention.

4. Serendipity: A certain amount of luck helps, but bear in mind Pasteur's famous observation, "Chances favors the prepared mind." E.g., LSD, Teflon, Viagra, aspartame, Post-It notes. Fortunately, no one has a patent on serendipity.

5. Error: E.g., Lee de Forest's development of the audion diode and the triode was the result of erroneous thinking, and de Forest never understood how they worked. But the inventions changed the world.

6. Exaptation: Birds developed feathers to keep warm and regulate their body temperature, and only later used them for flight.

There's more, as well. For example, Johnson advocates keeping a journal of half-baked ideas (following no organizational pattern at all) that you revisit frequently over a period, potentially, of years.

Bottom line, the "Eureka moment" is a myth in the sense that most such "moments" are the culmination of many hours (and/or years) of rumination, cooperation, hunch-accumulation, and serendipity. It's process, in disguise.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Remembering Nora Ephron

I was deeply saddened, not long ago, to hear about the recent passing (at the far-too-early age of 70) of one of my favorite writers of all time, Nora Ephron.

Nora Ephron
I had a personal connection with Ephron (which I'll get to in a minute), a tiny "brush with greatness," as some like to call it, and for many years after making contact with her, I had imaginary conversations (quite a few of them, if you must know) with Ephron, the way she herself admits to having had countless imaginary conversations with New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne.

Our conversations were great, of course. The stuff of legends. We'd talk about our writing adventures. The banality of American life. The inexplicable appearance of pomegranate extract in hand creams.

I suppose I could, in theory, go on having imaginary conversations with Nora. But unfortunately they'd be of the kind you have with a headstone in a cemetery. And I can't stand to think of her that way.

Most people alive today are not of Ephron's generation, so most do not know of the scores (hundreds?) of savagely witty, fiendishly funny, always entertaining essays and articles she did for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and (especially) Esquire. Today's audiences mostly remember Nora Ephron as the screenwriter behind When Harry Met Sally. Some may remember her role in cowriting You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and Silkwood.

But to me, Nora Ephron's best work (by far) was as a journalist and essayist. That's why I strongly recommend that you drop what you're doing right now (I'll wait) and go order a copy of I Feel Bad about My Neck, or Wallflower at the Orgy, or Crazy Salad, or one of her other books. I personally guarantee you will not regret the decision to buy one (or all) of these books. As Nora herself would say, they're far cheaper than psychoanalysis, and (in the end) more uplifting.

My personal connection with Ephron was small. Let's be clear on that. It was the kind of connection that, if it were a number, would round off to zero. But in my mind, it's bigger than big.

I need to explain.

Back in the 1970s, when I was starting out as a writer, I got all these lofty ideas (from reading Writers Digest, mostly) that if only I could sell articles to magazines like Playboy, Esquire, and Good Housekeeping, I could quit graduate school and never have to worry about pipetting Salmonella cultures by mouth again. I imagined it was possible to become famous as a freelance writer and throw down the shackles of "working a regular job," never to pick them up again.

What an ass I was.

I sent queries to every newsstand magazine under the sun. And got rejections by the Kubota dump-truck load. Every rejection note I got was some type of pre-printed slip with a message that began either with "Dear Sir or Madam," or no salutation at all. All of them were form-letters, in other words. Or form-slips, I should say.

But then there were the rejection letters I got from Esquire magazine.

The rejections from Esquire were hand-typed (on an actual typewriter) personalized notes from someone named Nora Ephron.

I've kept a couple of these hand-signed rejection letters, and let me tell you, they're some of the most precious items I have in my box of Precious Items.

In one case, I had queried Esquire on an article I wanted to do on a particular medical subject. Nora wrote back saying to send the finished article to her, she wanted to see it. She apologized for the fact that I would have to submit it "on spec," meaning that not only could its eventual acceptance not be guaranteed, but there would be no "kill fee" in the event of rejection.

I sent the manuscript for the article. Nora wrote me back, saying that the bad news was that a previous writer had done a piece on a similar subject less than a year earlier, and therefore the article couldn't be accepted. However. The "good news" was that she loved the piece and was taking the liberty of submitting it (for me) to someone she knew at The New York Times.

I was elated (needless to say) with her reply. In fact, I had never been so comforted by a rejection letter in my life. It gave me hope. It gave me encouragement at a time in my writing career when I most needed it.

Nora's rejection letter kept me going (odd as it may sound) to the point where I did eventually sell some articles to some (minor) newsstand magazines. Eventually, I got a job as Associate Editor of The Mother Earth News. Not long after, I was the one sending rejection letters to would-be writers. Always hand-typed. Always personalized. Always kind and generous.

I've had a pretty good run (over the last 35+ years) as a writer, editor, publisher, and all-around "word guy." And I do think I owe more than a small bit of gratitude to Nora Ephron. Way more.

That's one reason (but certainly not the only one) that I am so sad to see Nora leave us.

She was a force for good, in my life (and in many others, I'm quite sure).

R.I.P., Nora. We miss you. A lot.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

What to tell Jehovah's Witnesses

"I'm Jewish, my ancestors killed Jesus. And we'd do it again in a heartbeat."

"Not now. I just rented Batman."

"I'd love to talk to you, but my beer is getting cold."

"Everlasting life? Why the fuck would anyone want that?"

"There are no public restrooms here, sorry."

"Nice shoes. Did you make those in prison?"

"I thought the PeeWee Herman Convention ended last weekend."

"Love the outfits. Where did you park the DeLorean?"

"Wait. Pat Boone is not dead, is he?"

"In the old country, where I come from, 'Watchtower' rhymes with 'toilet paper.'"

"Hey thanks, man. I love comic books."

"It's not Halloween. You know that, right?"

"Can't help you. The National Alliance on Mental Illness moved out of this building a month ago."

"If you're looking for the titty bar, it's one block down."

"Sorry, I don't have any spare change. Plus I know you'll just buy wine with it."

"Don't you Amway people know when to stop?"

"Sorry, but no, I won't allow a new episode of Jackass to be filmed on my property."

"I thought there was supposed to be a third Stooge?"

"Good, can you wait while I make a quick phone call? Your illegitimate uncle was here looking for you an hour ago."

"I didn't realize the New Republicans were still in existence."

"I don't suppose you can get L. Ron Hubbard's autograph for me?"

"Wait. Didn't all you guys commit suicide in Guyana?"

"Aren't you a little old to be selling Girl Scout cookies? What the fuck, dudes."

"That purse you have there? It's probably worth something on eBay. Just sayin'."

"Don't go next door. The guy fucking hates Mormons."

"Hey, man. Give Mitt my regards."