Links: Cars and cities, antibiotics and sex, mattresses, universities, writing advice and more

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Computer science professor leaves, explains the problems with his institution, and doesn’t include the standard false-guilt genuflection. Or, as he puts it, he’s “going feral.”

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide and statistics about suicide with guns are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful and short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Are Graduate Students At Private Schools ‘Employees’?” Given the amount and kind of work they do, it’s hard to answer “no.” At the University of Arizona, English grad students taught two classes per semester, for pay—the same amount of teaching professors did.

* “Solving the Shortage in Primary Care Doctors;” see also my essay “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* Yet another reason why public schools are as fucked up as they are: Student Gets Suspended, Loses Scholarship After Hugging a Teacher.

* The politics of science fiction.

* “Doctors and nurses need to be replaced by computers and robots.”

* “How to Write: A Year in Advice from Franzen, King, Hosseini, and More: Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love.” Perhaps the most notable part is the number of people who give opposing or at least semi-contradictory advice. From that we might infer a meta rule: what works for other people won’t necessarily work for you (or me), and there isn’t necessarily a perfectly “right” way to do it.

What Stephen King does and most writers should do:

Don’t be put off by the first sentence of this excerpt:

A serious engagement with a wide range of social and political issues forms the undercurrent of much of King’s work, but it is free of cant or dogma. His characters speak up, never lapsing into thumbsucking anomie. King himself, rather than picking at emotional scabs, taps directly into the underlying marrow, and, though there are notable exceptions, a consistent message resonates: ‘It really isn’t about your parents; it’s about you’re afraid.’ King’s balm is his generosity as a storyteller. ‘He’s got to be the most casually dismissed great storyteller we have,’ his friend the humorist Dave Barry believes. ‘What makes writing interesting is the story. Except for English majors and English teachers, most people like a story. And Steve just has the capacity to see a story everywhere and in everything.’

It’s from “What Are You Afraid Of? Terror is Stephen King’s medium, but it’s not the only reason he’s so popular—and so frightening” in The New Yorker, and although it’s hidden behind a paywall, if you’d like to read the whole thing, send me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do.

I’d like to say something wise to extend the thoughts expressed above, but I don’t have any. You could take some lessons from this—avoid dogma, think about stories—but they’re ones most artists and would-be artists probably absorb over time.

The very very beginning writer

Literary agent Janet Reid is asking for advice. Or, more specifically, she’s asking writers for advice about advice:

When you were starting out, what advice did you get that REALLY helped you? And I mean both helped you improve as a writer, and helped you deal with the sense of failure and frustration when you wanted to do something so bad you could taste it, and it wasn’t working.

I left a comment, but after 90 of them, I’m guessing she probably got all the advice she wanted. That being said, I wish that a) all of the following books had been written, b) someone pointed me to them, and c) I was smart enough to find and read them:

—James Wood’s How Fiction Works
—Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer
—The two collected volumes from the New York Times, Writers on Writing.
—Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Those five are the major ones. A few others that might be worth leaving off at first because they could be overwhelming:

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
—William Zissner’s On Writing Well
—Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche
—Steven King’s On Writing

It’s somehow popular to argue that writing can’t be taught, but the more experience I accumulate, the more I begin to doubt that advice. Mark McGurl tackles it to some extent in his book The Program Era, which is also probably worth reading for anyone pondering a career in writing fiction, since so many of those careers today run through teaching at some point or another.

Someone else in Reid’s comments section gave similar advice to mine but in different words: “Go to your local library and read every book in the “How to write” 808 section.” Good call. If the writer takes this advice, they’ll learn more than they ever could in 10 or 15 minutes with Reid. The writer might disagree with some or most of what’d dispensed in the books I listed, or the books listed in the 808 section—which is a good thing, because otherwise fiction would droop into being formulaic. That being said, I still think that at least knowing such guidance exists is a positive: it gives you something to work with, or something to work against. Either way, I think the knowledge imparted will beat beating one’s way around blindly in the dark.

EDIT: A friend has been telling me to read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where you Dreamfor months, and I’m now getting around to it (this kind of lag between meaning to read something and actually reading it isn’t unusual for me: the number of books I’d like to read expands faster than the amount of time I have to read, and the list is continually being reshuffled based on needs and idiosyncrasies). With that long preamble, I’d like to point to this passage:

If I had me to talk to me back when, I might not have had to write a million dreadful words. If I’d caught me at the right moment—and in the right spirit—I might have had to write only a quarter of a million—maybe not so many as that if I’d really listened. You might ask, why did he write five terrible novels? How many terrible novels can you write? The answer is that I had no idea how badly I was writing. None. And my ability to continue working through a million words was so rooted in self-deception that I might not have been able to hear this message. So those are the things you may have to sort through, too.

You might. But if you stumble on this post, or Olen Butler’s book, or some of the other books listed above, in time, you might still come out with fewer terrible stories and novels than you would otherwise.

EDIT 2: This post concerning Philip Greenspun’s “Why I’m Not a Writer” is also germane. If you’re rich enough, you don’t have to worry about food and rent. Everyone else does. If you want to be a professional writer, one useful way to go about it is by starting off with a fat inheritance so you don’t need a day job. And if you want to be a writer, you’ll probably have a day job for life.

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