There are 15 parts and counting to this interview with writer, scientist Leonard Mlodinow (they are all about a page long). He’s wrote The Drunkard’s Walk, which I’ve ordered from Amazon — it sounds similar to Taleb’s The Black Swan, which was fantastic and crystallized some thoughts that had been racing around in the ether of my brain. Saving this one down as I particularly liked Mlodinow’s commentary on writing here.
For the rest, here’s the current directory:
- part 1
- part 2
- part 3
- part 4
- part 5
- part 6
- part 7
- part 8
- part 9
- part 10
- part 11
- part 12
- part 13
- part 14
- part 15
Also mentioned in part 15 is a documentary about Cal-Tech basketball that sounds intriguing — it is called “Quantum Hoops.” Might be worth renting.
MLODINOW I think that in a way . . . I guess there’s two components to being able to write. One is your natural proclivity, I try not to say talent, but it’s your voice or the way you express yourself. And the other is the craft part of it that you learn by doing. I think I always had a good sense of humor and maybe a way to say things colorfully or think in terms of dramatic or powerful situations and I guess that’s the first part and served well. The other part is the things you learn as you go, such as what puts people to sleep or how to abandon what you think are good ideas but really aren’t. That’s a hard lesson to learn because it’s difficult to let go of things you might like and to realize that it just doesn’t belong or goes on too far or the idea that sometimes it’s hard to recognize things that may be good but just don’t belong there–that are tangents and they take away the dramatic thrust of where you’re going and they really have to be cut even though they’re good and you like them. You know, lessons like that, lessons about pacing–you learn by doing, by failing. You learn more about pacing, all sorts of technical aspects of writing, whether its fiction or nonfiction or TV or books; there are certain principles that you just learn by repeatedly doing and doing wrong and realizing, absorbing what went wrong and fixing it and you grow that way. In book writing you’re able to do that a lot with rough drafts so a lot of your mistakes don’t end up getting published–you know? TV writing can be so fast that often you don’t see the problems with the script until you actually watch it on the air and then you go, ‘Next time I think I won’t have that guy climbing the stairs for four minutes in the middle of the scene; I think five seconds is enough to get the idea across.’
ROBERTS Yes, that kind of brings us back to the very beginning. I feel like somehow the times have changed and people are smarter. Now you can make a living from what you’re doing. You’re writing this very entertaining intellectual history; finally there’s a market for it. Finally people are smart enough to be at your level so that you can write a book that you respect but you can get a wide enough audience.
MLODINOW Are you saying that in the 50s that couldn’t have been done? I don’t know.
ROBERTS Well, nobody did it; let’s put it that way.
MLODINOW No, nobody did it. I don’t know why.
ROBERTS As I said before we started recording, you’re the first person to ever do this. Will you be the last? I don’t know but you’re the first. You’re the first person to write intellectual histories that actually are popular and that people want to read, that they’re not forced to read by their teachers. It’s not just a tiny group of people reading them. Professors of course write them but they’re not well written and it’s just their job to write them; they get a salary from the government to write those books. You’re not getting any salary. You’re an entrepreneur and it’s just so different. Your books have to be popular or your job goes away. It’s just a different level of competence; your books are just infinitely more accessible, infinitely better than a professor would normally write. A professor is subsidized and that’s what is basically comes down to. Practically everybody who writes about science is subsidized but you’re not.