Subscribe to The Atlantic and get 2 free issues

Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119

From 1990: George Plimpton interviews the acclaimed poet, who died Wednesday at age 86:

When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them—fifty acceptable pages—it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.

PUBLISHED: May 28, 2014
LENGTH: 26 minutes (6569 words)

You're Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary

What John McPhee and a good dictionary can teach us about writing:

John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.

PUBLISHED: May 23, 2014
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3198 words)

Meet the Godfather of Wearables

Alex Pentland has carved a career path somewhere between the social sciences and science fiction, spearheading the development of everything from Google Glass to fitness trackers.

It all started with beavers. When Alex Pentland was three years into his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, in 1973, he worked part-time as a computer programmer for NASA’s Environmental Research Institute. One of his first tasks — part of a larger environmental-monitoring project — was to develop a method for counting Canadian beavers from outer space. There was just one problem: existing satellites were crude, and beavers are small. “What beavers do is they create ponds,” he recalls of his eventual solution, “and you can count the number of beavers by the number of ponds. You’re watching the lifestyle, and you get an indirect measure.”

The beavers were soon accounted for, but Pentland’s fascination with the underlying methodology had taken root. Would it be possible, the 21-year-old wondered, to use the same approach to understand people and societies, or use sensors to unravel complex social behavior? And in so doing, could we find a way to improve our collective intelligence — to create, in a sense, a world that was more suited to human needs, where cities and businesses alike were developed using objective data to maximize our happiness and productivity?

SOURCE:The Verge
PUBLISHED: May 16, 2014
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3535 words)

How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future

How science fiction writers inform the way we think about the real world:

Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist at the Seattle-based tech company LaserMotive, who has done important practical and theoretical work on lasers, space elevators and light-sail propulsion, cheerfully acknowledges the effect science fiction has had on his life and career. “I went into astrophysics because I was interested in the large-scale functions of the universe,” he says, “but I went to MIT because the hero of Robert Heinlein’s novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel went to MIT.” Kare himself is very active in science fiction fandom. “Some of the people who are doing the most exploratory thinking in science have a connection to the science-fiction world.”

Microsoft, Google, Apple and other firms have sponsored lecture series in which science fiction writers give talks to employees and then meet privately with developers and research departments. Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the close tie between science fiction and technology today than what is called “design fiction”—imaginative works commissioned by tech companies to model new ideas. Some corporations hire authors to create what-if stories about potentially marketable products.

PUBLISHED: April 28, 2014
LENGTH: 8 minutes (2054 words)

George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview

An interview with 'Game of Thrones' author George R.R. Martin:

You've talked before about the original glimpse of the story you had for what became A Song of Ice and Fire: a spontaneous vision in your mind of a boy witnessing a beheading, then finding direwolves in the snow. That's an interesting genesis.

It was the summer of 1991. I was still involved in Hollywood. My agent was trying to get me meetings to pitch my ideas, but I didn't have anything to do in May and June. It had been years since I wrote a novel. I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones. It's from Bran's viewpoint; they see a man beheaded and they find some direwolf pups in the snow. It just came to me so strongly and vividly that I knew I had to write it. I sat down to write, and in, like, three days it just came right out of me, almost in the form you've read.

PUBLISHED: April 23, 2014
LENGTH: 25 minutes (6332 words)

This Book Is Now a Pulitzer Prize Winner: An Excerpt from 'Toms River' by Dan Fagin

This year's Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction was awarded yesterday to Dan Fagin, an NYU science journalism professor, for Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. According to the Pulitzer committee, Fagin's book, which chronicles the effects of chemical waste dumping on a small New Jersey community, "deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town’s cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution." Thank you to Fagin and Bantam Books for allowing us to reprint the excerpt here.

AUTHOR:Dan Fagin
SOURCE:Longreads
PUBLISHED: April 15, 2014
LENGTH: 8 minutes (2153 words)

Tell Me A Story: A Reading List

These four fantastic fiction pieces will take you far away from this perpetual winter.
SOURCE:Longreads
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2014

Showtime, Synergy: Exclusive Early Access to a New Story from The Awl and Matt Siegel

This week, we are excited to give Longreads Members exclusive early access to a new story from Matt Siegel, to be published next week on The Awl. Here’s more from The Awl co-founder and editor Choire Sicha:

“Matt Siegel’s very funny nonfiction story of love, deceit and betrayal (oh my God, I know!!!) comes on all unassuming and conversational. Unlike many citizens of the MFA world (Matt’s a recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program), he keeps his techniques hidden. We’re really looking forward to publishing this at The Awl, but we’re more thrilled to share it with Longreads Members—like ourselves!—first.”
Siegel (@unabashedqueer) has previously written for The Huffington Post, The Hairpin, Flaunt Magazine, and The Advocate.

Become a Longreads Member to get the story

Longreads Members, login here to start reading

SOURCE:Longreads
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2014
LENGTH: 29 minutes (7343 words)

How Much My Novel Cost Me

Writer Emily Gould on writing books, going into debt and navigating relationships. An excerpt from MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction:

It was more like the failure occurred in tiny increments over the course of two years, after which it was too late to develop a solid Plan B.

I spent some of the advance on clothes that no longer fit my body/life, but mostly I spent it on taxes—New York even has a city tax, on top of the state and federal kind—and rent. I lived alone for three years in Brooklyn, paying $1,700 a month ($61,200 all told) for a pretty but small one-bedroom within eyeshot of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. I also spent $400 a month on health insurance. At one point I thought I would find another full-time job after finishing the book, but then I must have convinced myself that teaching yoga part time would better enable my writing. I also thought that I would immediately start another book, which I would sell, like the first, before I’d written half of it. In order to believe this I had to cut myself off from all kinds of practical realities; considering these realities seemed like planning for failure. In retrospect it seems clear that I should never have bought health insurance, nor lived by myself.

SOURCE:Medium
PUBLISHED: Feb. 24, 2014
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5586 words)