Lofty Ambitions at AWP 2013 February 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
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Next week, we head to Boston for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. We’re excited because we’ve never been to Boston and because the conference is brimming panels, readings, and events. When exactly will we sneak away to see the Freedom 7 space capsule currently on display at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum?
Last year, before we headed to AWP in Chicago, we ran a series of guest posts by writers who were presenting at that conference, as well as posts about our own presentations. You can check out last year’s AWP run-up post, including links to guest posts by Kristen Iversen, Jeff Porter, M. G. Lord, and Tom Zoellner by clicking HERE.
Even before this year’s conference begins, Anna will participate in the Festival of Language, a marathon reading event at Dillon’s on Wednesday, March 6, at 5:30-10:30 p.m. Anna is slated for the last 90-minute session. What should she read?
Anna has been nominated to run for a position on the AWP Board. She’s running unopposed, it turns out, so she’s not agonizing too much over the results. That said, if you’re an individual member or if you teach at a member program, we encourage you to take time to vote at AWP’s elections webpage or on paper at the conference. AWP voting is especially important this year because the organization needs a quorum to change its governance procedures to comply with Virginia law.
What does becoming an AWP Board member mean? An official dinner, an all-day board meeting, another official dinner, and a national program directors meeting, then a regional program directors meeting—all before the conference really gets going at full tilt. Who knows what the next four years of her board term might entail?
Since Anna isn’t yet on the board, she’s presenting at a panel called “Creative Writing Under Siege,” which is scheduled for Saturday, March 9, at noon. She’s drafted her comments and discovered that she contradicts herself. It could be a panel with fireworks.
Doug is overseeing the Tabula Poetica table at the conference bookfair. Stop by H2 to talk with one of us or a Chapman University MFA student. We’ll have the first print issue of TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics available, and donations, of course, will be welcomed. TAB also just launched its monthly electronic issues, all of which will be archived HERE. Read work by Hadara Bar-Nadav, Robin Behn, Evie Shockley, and Marjorie Perloff in Issue #2, and check for Issue #3 in mid-March.
Here’s the AWP book signing schedule at the Tabula Poetica table (H2):
Thursday at 1:30pm: Kate Greenstreet
Friday at Noon: Allison Benis White
Friday at 1:00pm: Stephanie Brown
Saturday at 9:30am: Lynne Thompson
Saturday at 10:00am: Kate Gale
We’re still perusing the conference schedule, trying to pick and choose, divide and conquer. The early morning spot on Thursday offers a panel called “Knowledge and Manifestation: Science in Contemporary Poetry,” but we’re wondering whether we can manage to get to anything at 9:00 a.m. after our jam-packed Wednesday. That afternoon, “Science Writing for All” is on our list of things to do.
And then there’s Friday and Saturday—oh my!
The Next Big Thing (blog hop) January 28, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Science Writing, Space Shuttle
Poet Kristin LaTour tagged us for The Next Big Thing that’s going around the blogosphere. Here, we take on the ten questions that series poses.
What is your working title of your book?
We were born into the Apollo era, and Doug’s earliest memory is of watching the Moon landing. We came of age in the shadow of the space shuttle. As we followed the end of the shuttle program over the last couple of years, we realized that there’s a big swath—those born between the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first shuttle launch in 1981—that is Generation Space. When Neil Armstrong died last year, this space generation became the adults of this world.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
We started writing together in 2004, when we presented a paper about how aviation museums represented World War II. We sent in an abstract because we wanted to visit Amsterdam together, but after the conference, we published an essay version of our paper in an edited collection and kept writing together.
In 2008, we moved to Southern California for new jobs. As we packed our belongings, we started talking about how this move might be an opportunity for us because this area has a long tradition in aviation. We started Lofty Ambitions blog in 2010, in part to write about the aviation and spaceflight history that surrounded us. Generation Space is a natural outcome of our years together.
What genre does your book fall under?
Generation Space is part science writing, part cultural commentary, part memoir. Some might call it literary journalism.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
When we started following the end of the space shuttle program in the fall of 2010, we didn’t expect to meet actors. But it turns out that a lot of Americans from all walks of life are interested in space exploration. Seth Green of The Family Guy was at a #NASAtweetup for a shuttle launch, and we met Luke Wilson last time we were at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). We sat behind June Lockhart of Lost in Space at the title transfer of Endeavour here in California and saw Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek there too. And we’ve seen celebs of other sorts at KSC, like Anderson Cooper, John Oliver, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
As for who would play us, that’s hard to imagine. Maybe Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion, who currently star together in Castle. The two characters have different styles but work well together, collaborating on crime solving and, to a certain extent, novel writing. Katic has dark hair and pale skin like Anna, and we have a friend who’s met Katic’s brother. Of course, Fillion knows how to do space from Firefly and Serenity, and we’ve been watching him since Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Maybe our book could even be adapted for an episode of Castle, with someone attacked by one of the alligators that lives in the ditch near the launch pad at KSC—only, Richard Castle knows it’s murder.
Mostly, if we somehow get a movie deal for Generation Space, we probably won’t care who plays us, though Doug would veto Michael Chiklis.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Star Trek‘s Enterprise set out on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before, but NASA has gone boldly for fifty years and counting—Generation Space figures out what that means for us as a spacefaring nation and for our future.
Okay, we used a dash to get two sentences.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
We’re represented by Alice Tasman at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. We wrote about landing an agent here at Lofty Ambitions. Since then, with Alice’s suggestions in mind, we’ve revised our book proposal.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
We’ll let you know when we’re finished. We started drafting in earnest about a year ago at a two-week residency at Ragdale, and we have roughly half the book in really good shape and the rest mapped out.
Of course, we researched and wrote blog posts over two years, before we started drafting as a book. While we can’t merely cut and paste blog posts, a blog-to-book project means that we generated a lot of ideas and material that we can now use as we draft chapters. We’ve reorganized our thinking to form a table of contents that makes sense for Generation Space, and we’re distilling and expanding from blog posts to form chapter outlines. We end up re-drafting, then we revise and revise and revise.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
In some ways, our book works like Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden. She tackles nuclear weapons manufacturing, so the topic is different. But, like Iverson, we’re covering a blend of science and history and including personal experience. Another book with that sort of balance is Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl!, which is a personal and scientific investigation of allergies, or Tom Zoellner’s Uranium, which investigates all things—discovery, mining, uses, misuses—uranium. In all these science books, the author becomes part of the story, a vehicle for understanding the topic. And all three of these authors have contributed guest posts to Lofty Ambitions.
In other ways, our book is immersion journalism, a project book like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, or Tracy Kidder‘s The Soul of a New Machine. We immerse ourselves in a place we’ve never been before, and we learn—through failure and success—how to be insiders in a particular time and place to understand an aspect of our culture and ourselves. There’s an arc to our story and to the story of U.S. space exploration that we couldn’t convey solely through blog posts.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The trigger for following the end of the space shuttle and, ultimately, for writing Generation Space was driving out to the desert—to Edwards Air Force Base—on Thanksgiving weekend in 2008 to see Endeavour land.
By that point, the shuttle program as set to end within a few years, so we started wondering what that meant for us as individuals who grew up with American manned spaceflight as a given and for the country. Within two years, we went to KSC to see a launch. And we kept going and going.
Serendipity played a huge role in keeping us focused on this project. Through one colleague, we met Roger Boisjoly, a whistleblower in the Challenger accident (today—January 28—is the anniversary), and his papers are now archived at our university. Through another colleague, we attended an event celebrating the Ilan Ramon Day School; Ramon died in the Columbia accident, and we saw his wife speak and met astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is now at SpaceX. During our residency at Ragdale, we discovered that Lovell’s Restaurant—as in Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell—was nearby so we ate a delicious meal in the midst of space artifacts. Our friend Leslie Pietrzyk recently sent Albert Goldbarth’s poetry chapbook The End of Space to Anna. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t stumble across something connected to Generation Space. Serendipity is ongoing inspiration.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Most books about the space shuttle are really technical and demand a lot of the lay reader or are heavily photographic, without much information or narrative into which you can sink your reading teeth. We’re writing for for strollers as well as for studiers. A reader will learn a lot but find the story accessible. We have a story to tell.
Also, we’re writing in the voice that we developed for Lofty Ambitions. We write as a couple, though it’s clear when a particular experience is Anna’s or something happened specifically to Doug. We don’t know of any other book co-written by a poet and a science librarian; we have fun writing together, and the collaborative voice comes naturally to us now.
So that’s our take on The Next Big Thing. Keep reading—we’ve tagged the following writers for next week’s round of The Next Big Thing. Click on each name to continue reading The Next Big Thing next week!
On Finding an Agent: Working, Working, Working September 5, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Airshows, Space Shuttle
Good news! Two weeks ago, we signed with a literary agent who wants to represent our book about following the end of the space shuttle program. In fact, we sent out eight queries in mid-July, had three requests for our book proposal, and signed with the agent we most wanted before September 1. Easy as pie! Not—
Not so fast. Not fast, and not so easy. In fact, the phrase easy as pie refers to the eating of the delicious desert, not to the making of it, not to the effort of rolling the dough at the perfect temperature and moisture level to the perfect thickness—or thinness—not to achieving the proper flakiness of crust, nor to the slow simmering of berries and sugar. Writing isn’t just about finding an agent, though that’s part of the recipe for those of us writing novels or nonfiction in hopes of eventual book publication. Writing is about making something.
Of course, we’re thrilled to be working with Alice Tasman. We’re excited about what this might mean, and we’ve toasted our recent success. We’re also grateful to Emily Gray Tedrowe, a novelist we met at Ragdale, for putting us in touch with her agent, who is now our agent. And we’re pleased to hear that novelist Timothy Schaffert has been represented by Alice Tasman for a decade and is still thrilled.
But signing with an agent is part of a much larger process, the process of working together, of writing week to week. Having an agent, like many other steps in this process, is a reason to keep writing. Each step in the larger process is both a goal and a motivation. We have an agent—that means we get to keep working on this project.
Our two-week residency at Ragdale in February of this year was the same sort of step. Being awarded a writing residency was a goal we had, something we wanted to achieve—something we want the opportunity to do again. It’s a reward we had to work toward, writing for a long time and developing a focus before we felt ready to try to prove ourselves worthy as nonfiction writers to a judging panel. But that writing residency was motivation, too, the kick-off to Anna’s sabbatical and to the work we did together on the book proposal, including drafting chapters of the book. Those two weeks were the most productive writing time we’ve ever had, separately or together, and propelled us into the steady work we’ve done over the following six months on what we’re now calling Generation Space.
Certainly, we can trace the work for this project back a couple of years, before Ragdale. We started this blog in July of 2010 with a commitment to post every Wednesday. We actually post more often, and we’ve done a series of guest posts and a series of video interviews, but the most important thing was that we set a goal—post every Wednesday—that gave us a reason to keep writing together. By the end of that October, we were flying off to Florida to see one of the last space shuttle launches. We traveled to the Space Coast four times in nine months. We applied for media credentials; that’s what writers who want to cover events do. We did our homework; that’s what writers who want to produce in-depth nonfiction do. We wrote, then we wrote some more; writing is what writers do most. We worked steadily, we revised, and we took some risks and learned from mistakes. We did what we were supposed to do.
We can trace the process even further back. In the summer of 2004, we presented a paper about aviation museums at a conference in Amsterdam. During our early days together in Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio, we had made our way to local air shows and had tossed around the idea of writing a book about the air show culture generally or WWII pilots in particular. We’d been going to aviation museums too, so on a whim, we sent in an abstract for a conference call for papers. The goal was Amsterdam, but presenting that paper was a reason to keep pursuing the topic of aviation and spaceflight. We followed up with two articles together, one in an edited collection called Bombs Away! and the other in the journal Curator. We had started writing about what interested us most, and editors gave us a nod. It wasn’t fast or easy, but that’s how things are supposed to work.
Each thing we were supposed to do, each step a writer is supposed to take, seemed both a reward and a motivation for us over the last ten years. Sure, the process is different for every writer, and also different for different projects. Sure, we failed to see Discovery’s last launch after we optimistically flew cross-country to the Space Coast two years ago. Sure, we’ve been strung along for months by an editor at a mainstream magazine, only to be rejected in the end—and we’ve been rejected without being strung along, too. We haven’t finished the complete draft of our book (though that’s partly because we have yet to follow Endeavour and Atlantis to their museum homes this year), so we’re absolutely not finished doing what we’re supposed to do.
Every writer—every project—must find his or her own path and pace. But we found that the system works, as long as we keep working, keep writing. And we’re not the only ones who’ve discovered this. Our writer friend and Anna’s occasional collaborator on matters of pedagogy, Stephanie Vanderslice, recently signed with an agent too. Like us, Stephanie found that, if you get a call from an agent, that means she’s enthusiastic and really gets what you’re trying to accomplish. And Stephanie recognizes the importance of editors and agents: “Her [the agent’s] suggestions made complete sense; she is a shrewd and perceptive editor—not surprisingly, since that’s what she was for ten years before becoming an agent. I went back to the novel immediately knowing exactly what I wanted to do and feeling really good about it (knock wood). I’ll have a piece coming out in the Huffington Post this week about all the reasons we should fear a world without editors–this is yet another reason why.” We appreciate editors and agents too; we don’t always succeed, but we’ve become better writers as we’ve negotiated this system.
Doug’s grandmother used to chide, “Working, working, working.” She was one of those work-ethic believers, someone who thought good people work hard, someone who thought working hard made you a good person. For writers, the quality of the work matters, and timing matters. We have our own writing process, the habits that keep us immersed in sentences and paragraphs. But it’s also the larger process that keeps us working week to week, that keeps us looking ahead.
Mmmm…Lovell’s of Lake Forest March 7, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Museums & Archives
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At Ragdale, the dinner meal isn’t served on Saturday evenings. There are plenty of tasty leftovers for residents to eat, but we took the opportunity on our second Saturday to traipse down to Lovell’s of Lake Forest, a restaurant started by Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell and now owned and run by his son, Jay. We weren’t sure what to expect. We found good food, good service, good space artifacts, and good new writer friends!
Our two weeks at Ragdale were an amazing writing experience. Our dinner at Lovell’s was a terrific bonus. Jay Lovell serves up the absolutely best dinner you’ll ever find at an aerospace museum. No matter where we find ourselves, we look around and find something unexpected.
Lofty Ambitions at AWP February 29, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Information, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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We’re really excited that both of us are presenting at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference this year and that our presentations are directly related to what we do at Lofty Ambitions.
CLICK TO READ LOFTY POSTS HIGHLIGHTING AWP PRESENTERS:
Doug will talk about archives and the use of letters in fiction and creative nonfiction on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Lake Ontario Room of the Chicago Hilton. Our recent visit to the CalTech archives is also related his talk; read that post HERE.
Anna is the organizer for a panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” which will be held on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m. in Continental B at the Chicago Hilton. It’s a great topic for this year in the Windy City because it’s the 70th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction, which Enrico Fermi set off at the University of Chicago.
AWP actually begins today with set-up for the bookfair. For the first time, Chapman University, Tabula Poetica, and the Fowles Center for Creative Writing have a table at the AWP Bookfair—D-21. So Anna will be setting up posters and book displays this afternoon. You can find the list of the booksignings at the table on the Tabula Poetica homepage—click HERE.
We also want to give a nod to Tiffany Monroe, an MFA student at Chapman University, who is presenting on a panel called “MFA Students Speak Up” on Friday, March 2, at 9:00a.m. Tiffany will also help us with the bookfair table.
If you’re in Chicago this coming weekend, you can meet Chapman University authors in person on Saturday, when the bookfair is open to the public. Stop by Table D-21 any time 9a.m.-3p.m. that day. Look for the Lofty duo around town!
Update from Ragdale and A Nuclear Birthday February 11, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Einstein, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
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On Thursday evening, after dining on walnut burgers, chipotle sweet potatoes, and sautéed spinach, we built a fire in the fireplace and settled in for a long editing session. We spent more than four hours working our way aloud through the two chapters we’ve drafted since our writing residency began.
Yesterday, it snowed in big clumps. From our second-floor windows, we watched the snow fall. Anna went outside for a short walk and to take some photos. Then, we tried to outline the rest of the chapters, doling out our ideas to the remaining chunks of pages we imagine. We try to outline the next two in more detail, put the ideas in the order they should appear. We have an idea of how long the chapters will be so we move a few things to a later chapter. But because of our experience drafting this project over the last week, we aren’t estimating the number of words or pages we expect an idea to take.
We have a sense of what we want to accomplish before we leave, and we’re pretty sure that, even if everything goes well, we would need three more days than we have. That said, we’re appreciative of the time we do have remaining here at Ragdale.
Today, we also pause to consider Leo Szilard, who was born on this date in 1898. As a Manhattan Project physicist, perhaps the first one, he fits into our “In the Footsteps” series, and he’s someone who’s long interested us.
Born in Hungary, he attended the Institute of Technology in Berlin, where he hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. With that kind of company, it’s no wonder he ended up thinking, by 1933, after fleeing the Nazis and landing in London, about how a sustained nuclear reaction might work. There are several stories, most told at one time or another by Szilard himself, about how his idea that fission might lead to a bomb came to Szilard, but it’s clear that he was at least partly inspired by reading H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free. By the late 1930s, he was teaching at Columbia University, thinking uranium would be the right element for such a nuclear reaction, and soliciting Einstein’s endorsement of a letter he wanted to send to President Roosevelt. The letter from Einstein to Roosevelt led to the development of the Manhattan Project, and hence the suggestion that Szilard was the first physicist on the project.
Szilard moved on to the University of Chicago, where he helped Enrico Fermi build the first controlled nuclear reaction and held the patent with Fermi for that first nuclear reactor, which they referred to as a “pile.” In this coming week’s regular Wednesday post, we offer a sneak-peek of Anna’s AWP presentation on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age, which mentions this historic event of December 2, 1942, an event that, in a real sense, marked the beginning of the nuclear age.
As the United States grew closer to having a useable nuclear weapon, Szilard became concerned about its use against Japan and pushed unsuccessfully for a test demonstration. He was also disturbed that the military would have control over nuclear weapons and that scientists were not being involved in policy.
Shortly after the war, Szilard gave his attention to biology and even fiction writing, with a collection of short stories related to his experiences and the Cold War and in which dolphins tell the story of our demise. He also met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and suggested a hot line between the White House and the Kremlin and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rushed to Geneva in hopes of establishing a dialogue between the president and the premier. Only a few months after joining the Salk Institute in 1964, Leo Szilard died in his sleep from a heart attack.
Enrico Fermi, Szilard’s partner in the first nuclear reactor, died of stomach cancer at age 53. Szilard later developed bladder cancer. Szilard’s cancer didn’t kill him, though it might have if he hadn’t undergone radiation and then, much to his doctors’ chagrin and by his own treatment design, more radiation. He had radioactive silver implanted in the tumor. Such implantation radiation treatment was highly unusual then but has since become one common way to treat prostrate cancer.
Szilard’s unconventional thinking didn’t stop with his science. He was known for soaking in a hot bath in the mornings to think and to take breakfast. Taking a hot bath today, perhaps with a glass of wine, might be the most fitting way to celebrate Szilard’s birthday. In 1951, he married Dr. Trude Weiss after they had been pen pals and confidantes for more than twenty years. We like this part of the story especially, in large part because we, too, knew each other twenty years before running off and doing something foolish like that. Szilard and Weiss, though, would spend most of the marriage living apart, something with which we’re not unfamiliar.
Szilard’s legacy, then, as a nuclear scientist and a human being is, like so many of the people about which we are drawn to write, a complex one. He was the Humanist of the Year in 1960, mingling in the ranks of Margaret Sanger and, later, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Helen Caldicott, Margaret Atwood (who will be at AWP in a few weeks), and Bill Nye. Not a bad group overall and certainly eclectic.
In the Footsteps (Part 12) February 8, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Lofty Ambitions is going to AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Doug will present on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Chicago Hilton. As we’ve peeked at letters and telegrams written in bygone days, we’ve learned a lot about archives and how to read these documents. Doug’s expertise as a scientist and as a librarian continues to be a great asset for us, and he’s sharing some of that here at Lofty Ambitions as well as at AWP.
To read the rest of our “In the Footsteps” series, click HERE or on that tag in the tag cloud in the sidebar. To read posts by those presenting presenting at the AWP panel “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” click HERE or on the Guest Blogs category in the menu up top, then scroll for Tom Zoellner, M. G. Lord, Jeff Porter, and Kristen Iversen, whose forthcoming book will be featured in Barnes & Nobel’s Summer Great New Writers program.
PURLOINING THE LETTER: DOCUMENTS OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
I’m currently working on an espionage novel, set during the Manhattan Project. the Lofty Duo has done a fair bit of research, including working in the archives of the Library of Congress, where we’ve read through some boxes of the papers of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Although I’d taken away several fascinating tidbits from that research project, after hearing Alan Furst discuss methods for building a vocabulary that authentically recreates a historical period, I silently admonished myself for not being more methodical in my own use of the letters, memos, notes, and other ephemera in Oppenheimer’s papers. All these types of documents—letters, memos, telegrams, notes, and other ephemera—play the same role in my research because they, unlike a private journal or a publication intended for the general public, are written for a specific audience.
Since that realization inspired by Furst’s talk, I’ve been more focused in my research use of letters and other materials. I think about my usage as fitting a few primary categories:
- Language and vocabulary development. This aligns with Furst’s suggestions in recreating a time period but has also helped me in creating verisimilitude by learning the military and scientific jargon of the era.
- Events confirmation. This helps me align my novel’s plot with the recorded events.
- Character development. Each document reveals aspects of the person who wrote it and also of the person who was intended to receive it.
A concrete example of the type of historically accurate vernacular that I needed to develop in my novel is the list of codenames assigned to important Manhattan Project scientists. Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, for example, were assigned the names Farmer and Baker respectively. The use of code names, primarily for communications and travel purposes, is described in a number of books and biographies about the era. In the richly annotated book Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, authors Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner include a letter from Oppenheimer to the project’s military head, General Leslie Groves, wherein the left-leaning academic encourages the security-obsessed military man to consider assigning code names by saying, “it would be preferable if such well known names were not put in circulation.” Not only do I better understand the practice of codenames, but also the way in which the practice was discussed.
The second way in which letters have played a role in my novel has been to develop my understanding of the sequencing of events associated with the Manhattan Project. The beginning of the project itself is associated with a specific letter, signed by Albert Einstein in October 1939 and hand-carried to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s response was to create a committee to investigate the feasibility of this research. For a program that would ultimately consume $2B dollars, the Manhattan Project got off to a very modest start, spending in the neighborhood of $5K in 1939 and 1940. The papers of Robert Bacher in CalTech’s archives detail the extent of this work. Even more important, by the letters’ very nature—one-to-one communication between the involved scientists—the documents point to the fact that none of the involved parties anticipated the scope of what was to come. That in-the-moment record can be even more important than the hindsight of a historical text that looks back long after the events.
The third letter-use category that I have defined for my own work has been their use in character development, both fictional and historical. Of particular interest to me, for instance, was a recommendation letter written by Richard Feynman, which I encountered in the papers of Robert Oppenheimer in the Library of Congress. Much has been written about Feynman’s quirky, non-conformist character (including much in his own voice, in books that he penned). And yet, after making my way through most of Feynman’s books and several books where Feynman appears, nothing could make his unconventional ways as tangible as a single letter—written for a single person, Oppenheimer—wherein Feynman suggests that a candidate for a job (at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies) will make his greatest contribution by being fantastic at parties.
Other aspects of working with letters in archives can be helpful as well. Recently, I listened to Knox College Professor Doug Wilson discuss how Abraham Lincoln’s predilection for producing multiple drafts of letters has actually influenced the course of scholarship. In a somewhat unusual situation, the final copies of Lincoln’s letters have been archived at the Library of Congress, while the drafts are at the Huntington Library. By comparing the two collections, Wilson discovered that the Library of Congress actually had gaps in its Lincoln Collection, that drafts existed where there was no remaining final copy in the Library of Congress. My research thus far indicates that this tendency to produce multiple drafts of letters (usually one or two handwritten versions that were then typed up, sometimes with a carbon copy, perhaps by a secretary) is also common in the papers of Manhattan Project scientists. While this hasn’t been consciously reflected in my novel by characters writing drafts of letters, it has provided me with an insight into how these people thought, how they planned and revised. It has also caused me to wonder on several occasions about how many of my colleagues draft and revise emails before sending them, as I often do.
I’ll conclude this post as a librarian myself, with some practical advice regarding working with letters in archives. First, call ahead and make an appointment. Particularly in these times of economic uncertainty, archives are overworked and understaffed. During our most recent archival visit to CalTech, drop-ins were turned away. In addition, librarians and archivists are best able to help those who help themselves. By contacting them prior to your visit, they will probably ask you for specifics regarding the materials that you wish to see. In larger archives, materials are often stored offsite. By planning ahead, those materials can be brought to the work area prior to your visit.
Also, think ahead about copyright. In some collections, statements about copyright are included. In others, not so much. Ask questions so that you know the extent to which you can quote or otherwise use documents and how you should credit that use. Depending on the date it was written, the copyright holder of a personal letter, for instance, is usually the writer of that letter, not the recipient or whoever happens to have it in her attic.
Lastly, be cognizant of the age of the materials that you handle. Tearing a letter in half as you pull it out of the box is a rotten way to start a research visit. Holding thin, fragile letters conveys a sense of the preciousness of these materials and their contents and a sense of proximity to the time in which they were written, as if you can hear the letter-writer’s footsteps receding down the hallway.
Guest Blog: M. G. Lord February 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Cognitive Science
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M. G. Lord is a cultural critic, journalist, and the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. Since 1995, she has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the Arts & Leisure section. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New Yorker, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Travel + Leisure, and Artforum. She teaches at the University of Southern California and will anchor the nonfiction division at the first annual Yale Writers Conference in New Haven this summer.
We became interested in M. G. Lord’s work after Doug saw her present on a panel about science writing at the Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference. You can read our post about that panel HERE. After that, Anna read Lord’s book Astro Turf (lots of good Jet Propulsion Laboratory stuff) and, when the opportunity arose, invited Lord to participate in the upcoming AWP panel on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that Lofty Ambitions is featuring each of the presenters on that creative nonfiction panel. Click HERE for the post by Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden. Click HERE for the post by Jeff Porter, author of Oppenheimer is Watching Me. Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium and A Safeway in Arizona, will be our next guest blogger. And if you’re in Chicago on March 2, join us at 1:30p.m. in the Hilton, Continental B.
We’re especially interested in what she’s doing now, namely collaborating on her next book project, which has to do with neuroscience, and, in the process, exploring the technology of drawing.
DISTRACTING ONESELF INTO THE NEXT PROJECT
On February first, Bloomsbury USA published my new book, The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. As you may glean from the title, this is a departure from my previous book, Astro Turf, a family memoir of aerospace culture during the Cold War and an informal history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both books, however, have a common attribute—one that, I suspect has blighted books since Gutenberg invented moveable type: Publication is hell. Or, in any event, publication taxes an author’s nerves.
My strategy for dealing with such stress is to avoid anything written about my work, whether it’s positive or negative. Instead, I immerse myself in a fresh project, ideally one that has little in common with the book under scrutiny. This means not only a different subject but also a new medium. That brings me to my latest endeavor. In collaboration with Dr. Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who also happens to be an opera singer, I am working on a graphic novel that has to do with the brain.
By working, I mean both writing and drawing, the latter of which today seems more like engineering than art. Two decades ago, when I retired from a 12-year run as a political cartoonist for Newsday, all a caricaturist needed to excel was hand-eye coordination and a mean spirit. I drew malicious pictures with a crow quill pen on Bristol board. But in 2012, the best graphic artists are also software virtuosos. They render some or all of their cartoons digitally, either scanning pen-and-ink drawings into the computer or executing an entire image in a program such as Adobe Illustrator.
To say I lack an aptitude for engineering would be a gross understatement. Never mind that I developed great admiration for engineers while writing Astro Turf. Initially, I was so intimidated by the drawing software that I hired a tutor to help me with it—or, more accurately, to help me decide whether mastery was a realistic possibility. Our first session—on my tutor’s equipment—was psychologically brutal. After two hours of scanning existing drawings and manipulating them in Adobe Photoshop, we moved to the true baptism of fire: drawing directly on a tablet connected to the computer.
All political cartoonists of my vintage—I was in college in the late 1970s—can draw Richard Nixon in their sleep. During Watergate, I taught myself to render the disgraced President on an Etch-a-Sketch, which back then was an eye-popping parlor trick. Compared with a tablet, however, the Etch-a-Sketch is an inexpensive, effortless drawing tool. Now, I faced a pricy, counterintuitive torture device. After another hour of tutoring, I managed to scratch out a digital approximation of Nixon’s flapping jowls and ski-jump beak. And I decided to commit both time and money to embracing the digital future.
Tablets come in two main styles: one on which you draw but your marks appear on a separate monitor; the other that is itself a monitor, so that you see what you have drawn beneath your stylus rather than feet away. As you can imagine, the latter iteration is pricier than the former. I was planning to go the cheap route until the universe sent me a message not to. Last month, a lifestyle magazine asked me to interview Rodolphe Guenoden, a DreamWorks animation supervisor. I expected we would talk about animated movies. But Guenoden’s great passion is graphic novels, and he showed me how he used hardware and software to render them digitally. He made drawing on a Wacom Cintiq—a tablet that also functions as a monitor—seem almost intuitive. I watched him change the way his lines appeared, simulating brushstrokes, pen lines, pencil marks. And I bought the Cintiq.
True, it took me three hours with a tutor to set it up. And another 45 minutes to figure out how to define the margins on a page. In the old days, with a T-square, I could pencil in margins while blindfolded. My hand still reaches for the pens and brushes on my desk. But I allow it to—even Guenoden does his initial storyboarding on paper.
A steep learning curve awaits. But that is exactly what I want. It is guaranteed to distract me from the vicissitudes of publication.
Update from Ragdale & Today’s Birthdays February 4, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Serendipity, WWII
The flight from Long Beach to Chicago was a breeze. It took some time to rent the car because folks, including Tom Brady’s dad, were flying into the Windy City and drving down to Indianapolis for tomorrow’s Super Bowl. Coming from L.A.-area traffic, the drive from O’Hare Airport to Ragdale was amazingly smooth. Does Chicago not have rush hour anymore, or have our standards changed?
Ragdale is nestled in Lake Forest, a luxurious northern suburb perched on Lake Michigan. Upon arrival, we had a glass of wine, a tour of the Barnhouse, and a delicious home-cooked dinner with our six fellow residents and three enthusiastic staff. Several of the residents are from the area, and one is a fellow Knox College alum. Our rooms are comfortable, quiet, and warm.
Books by former residents, including Scott Turow, Sara Peretsky, Mary Gaitskill, Jennifer Haigh, and Alice Sebold, line a wall of shelves by the front door. Anna started reading the uncorrected proof of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Space this morning. Finding a memoir about growing up on the Space Coast was just the sort of serendipity we like to use as encouragement.
Yesterday, on our first full day, we found the gym at Lake Forest College, where Ragdale residents can work out at no cost. It’s the nicest gym we’ve ever seen. The Metra station is nearby, as is the beach, though we haven’t traversed there yet. The Whole Foods was a little farther than we thought, but we picked up a few essentials and got our bearings in case we need to get out for a meal or stop at Barnes & Noble.
And we wrote. For hours. We had pizza with the other residents last night. And then we wrote some more. Some of our drafting is from scratch, and some is drawn from things we’ve already written, though not cut and pasted because we don’t want to inadvertently shape our big project by the structure or language of previous work. We’re rethinking and trying to figure out something new.
This morning, Anna admitted that she’s sick with a cold. Doug will travel into Chicago for dinner with family and friends without her. Today is a break in the routine. We’re not writing as much, but we’re still writing.
And we’re quietly celebrating two birthdays. Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, was born on this date in 1902. If you don’t know the story of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, we recommend The Spirit of St. Louis, starring Jimmy Stewart, himself a pilot and a WWII veteran who trained B-17 bombardiers in the United States, flew B-24s overseas in the war, and even managed to earn a Mach 2 pin by flying a B-58 Hustler—one of Doug’s favorite aircraft—to twice the speed of sound.
Lindbergh’s life, of course, was far more complicated than the film portraying the accomplishment that brought him instant fame both in the United States and abroad. He was interested in a lot of things, including Robert Goddard’s work in rocketry and Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrell’s work in organ surgery. In fact, Charles Lindbergh invented a perfusion pump that contributed to the development of heart surgery. He was given unprecedented access to German and Soviet aviation facilities before WWII and began publicly opposing the war. Some of his statements smack of anti-Semitism, and there are stories (including his daughter’s book) of affairs and secret children in Europe. The story that garnered worldwide notoriety, though, was the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s young son in 1932. The boy’s remains were found a couple of months later, and a perpetrator was convicted and executed.
Charles Lindbergh’s story is a lesson in complexity for us as writers and seems to be, like any life, the weaving together of several stories that may not be seamless. We strive for narrative arc, cause and effect, a beginning and middle and end, but we don’t want to jerry-rig our story.
That brings us to the second birthday. Clyde Tombaugh was born on this date in 1906. We wrote about him briefly in “Happy Birthday, Neptune!” Tombaugh was a fellow Ilinoisan who made his way out West. While working at the Lowell Observatory, he discovered the ninth planet, Pluto. For a long time, that was a good story. But Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006, though even before that, museums had started opening displays of the Solar System without Pluto. The story changed—or rather, the facts remained the same (Pluto is still out there), but the interpretation changed as time passed.
So Clyde Tombaugh’s story is a lesson for us too, as we’re figuring out how to tell our story. The story may change, the details rearranged to lead to new ideas, and that’s okay.
Off to Ragdale! February 1, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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Tomorrow, we head together for a two-week writing residency at Ragdale, an artists’ colony outside of Chicago. We’ve each held a residency before: Anna for a month at Vermont Studio Center, and Doug for a workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony (read “Gotta Get Away” HERE). Several years ago, we went together to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival (read “Back to School” HERE), but we took separate workshops and were focused on our individual novel projects then. Now, our bags are packed, we’re officially working on a collaborative writing project, and we’re ready to go. Here’s how we prepared.
SHORING UP & WORKING AHEAD
Because of this impending stint to focus on our collaborative project, January has been especially busy. Doug has worked ahead on his tasks at Leatherby Libraries, and Anna has worked ahead on Tabula Poetica’s AWP Bookfair table and fall Poetry Reading Series. A few weeks ago, we traversed a path to CalTech (see our post about those archives HERE) so that Doug could do some extra research on letters for his upcoming conference presentation, and Anna holed up at home for a day here and there to finish a poetry manuscript. We even queued up February’s guest bloggers. We also put conscious effort into catching up with laundry and arranged for our trusted colleague and neighbor to look after our house and, perhaps, throw wild parties in our absence.
In other words, this month has been a necessary whirlwind and a hodgepodge even though we were between semesters. We’re hoping that Ragdale offers a stark contrast to this past month so that we don’t move from one small task to the next disparate obligation hour to hour. We want to forget about email for a few hours a day and not worry about when we’ll get to the dust bunnies that gather against the floorboards.
SETTING BOUNDARIES FOR OUR UNIVERSITY WORK
We each have some tasks at the university that we can’t ignore for two weeks. So we’ll have to check our email messages, probably once a day. But in order to keep that obligation in check day to day, we’ve established some guidelines for ourselves:
- Lower others’ expectations by setting automatic vacation responses that make it clear that a reply won’t be coming soon. We’ll get to it all, but maybe not until after February 15.
- De-prioritize email by not checking it before accomplishing some writing for the day. Our schedule should reflect our priorities, and California is two hours behind anyway.
- Ignore as many messages as possible until after the residency. We must be discerning and not think everything is important, not think that we’re more important than we are. We may need to set a time limit.
OUTLINING THE PROJECT BEFORE WE GO
Our outline is something broadly defined but organized nonetheless, something we’ve bandied back and forth over dinner since we got the thumbs-up from Ragdale in December, something we’ve typed up and printed out so that it looks serious. We’ve also pulled together blog posts we’ve written that might loosely fit somewhere in this outline. The outline means that we aren’t starting from scratch and that we can schedule our time—separately and together—in relation to the content we know we want to produce.
PLANS FOR CHUNKING UP THE DAY
Because we’ve already drafted some content and agreed upon the basic outline, we’ve decided to chunk up each day into three writing sessions to establish a routine.
- Session 1: Writing Apart. After breakfast together, the first part of each day will be spent writing—organizing, drafting, revising—separately for a few hours before lunch. The goal for each morning is to produce something to show each other.
- Session 2: As the Day Demands. After sharing over lunch together, we’ll write separately or together as the content for that day demands. We need to be adaptable and respond to the project as it takes shape.
- Session 3: Writing Together. The end of our day will be spent together, revising what’s drafted, reorganizing content, mapping missing parts, brainstorming for the next day. We’ll read aloud what we’ve drafted separately, which is something we used to do weekly at Charlie’s Ale House in Wheaton but which we have done only sporadically over this past year. We’ll do some drafting together sentence by sentence, which we really enjoy but which has been more difficult to sync up into our schedules in the last six months.
Working separately smacks of efficiency: twice the work in a given amount of time. With just twelve full days of residency, we want to work part of the time in parallel. The work we do side by side gives us the sense that we are more than the sum of our parts, that collaboration allows us to accomplish more than we could otherwise, and that our individual brains can work a little bit harder, a little bit faster than they do when we’re alone. The happy side effect of this collaborative sense is motivation.
WILL IT SUCCEED?
Writing doesn’t always work the way we think it will. This chunking of days looks good on paper, but it might not work as smoothly as we want. Writing separately may encourage us to stray from the outline, each moving in different directions, the balance thrown off when we bring the parts together and discover we each thought different ideas were important. If we notice that we have fundamentally different perspectives, writing together might involve far more time than we expect. No matter what happens, we’ll need to remember that two weeks of writing time is a great gift and just keep going.