The Secret of Einstein’s Ability to Adapt to Failure

As part of my attempt to embrace the complexity of Albert Einstein, I’m exploring a chapter in Lewis Pyenson’s book The Young Einstein:  The Advent of Relativity.  Pyenson begins by enumerating the failures Einstein overcame prior to being awarded the most prestigious physics chair in the world.  He failed to complete his degree at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich–the equivalent of a high school diploma.  He failed to pass the entrance exam at the Zurich Polytechnic at age 16.  Upon eventually graduating from the Polytechnic, he failed to be hired for a graduate assistantship–the usual course for the school’s graduates.  He failed to obtain a teaching post in Switzerland.  His first doctoral thesis was refused.  His first marriage was a failure as was his attempt to win others to pacifism in World War I.  Little came from his diplomacy in the 1920’s and when he moved to the United States, he was unable to make any lasting impact in his field.  His quest for a unifed field theory was never realized.

Pyenson suggests that Einstein was able to tolerate these failures and persevere because at every turn, they were the consequence of his own choices, choices made by one whom Pyenson says was not exactly the bohemian he claimed to be, nor the rebel his secretary, Helen Dukas, designated him,  because Einstein was bound by traditional fundamentals in both his personal and scientific life.  For example, due to the opposition of his mother, Einstein was unable to marry his Serbian sweetheart until his father summoned him to his deathbed and gave permission. In the text Albert co-authored with Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, he resists any description of physics that is not orderly and cumulative.  When acausality in quantum mechanics was the fashion, Einstein cited a high authority and built on traditional principles of causality.

Rather, Pyenson suggests, Einstein was a stranger in the sense originally described by Jewish German sociologist Georg Simmel.  A stranger, according to Simmel, is one “who lives in a culture but finds himself, by virtue of his previous experience, spiritually or temperamentally removed from it.  The stranger’s internal values keep him apart from other people.  He is remote, even in his most intimate relationships.  . . . because of separate status, the stranger brings abstractness and generality to his perceptions and judgments. . . .  He surveys the world from a privileged vantage point.” (Pyenson, 61-62)

Genius aside, there are obviously things about Einstein I relate to–or I wouldn’t be writing about him–and one is this insistence on order and causality in my conception of the universe and a leaning on traditional principles in my decision making.  And, without taking anything away from the difficulties of minorities who live in a second culture, I wonder if writers in general don’t understand what it is to be a stranger.  That’s hard to say, of course, being stuck in my own point of view, but I often feel a sense of being outside the mainstream, perceptually.

As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of a quote by Dallas Willard  I recently wrote down , because, like most writers, I learn what I’m thinking by writing about it.  It’s one way the work gives back to the author.   The quote is this:  “The sense of having some degree of control over things is now recognized as a vital factor in mental and physical health and can make the difference between life and death in those who are seriously ill.   . . . having a place of rule goes to the very heart of who we are, of our integrity, strength, and competence.”

This seems to be an answer to how I might deal with a recent situation of failure that I’ve found emotionally debilitating.  I need to do something to restore a sense of control over my process.

How do you deal with failure?

images.jpg Lewis Pyenson’s THE YOUNG EINSTEIN Dallas Willard

Posted in Dallas Willard, dealing with failure, Einstein, Helen Dukas, Lewis Pyenson, making art, point of view, reading, writing | Leave a comment

That Mysterious Natural Image

After writing clinically about mystery in my last post, I got thinking about how it enters the text.  First, I checked and came up with these two appropriate definitions:

  • anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown: the mysteries of nature.
  • any truth that is unknowable except by divine revelation.

It’s interesting that nature should come up, for I had already started thinking about how images of nature resonate for me.  The end of Amy Hempel’s story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” came to mind–about a young woman who fails her dying best friend in the end.  Early on in the story, the narrator tells her dying friend about a chimp who was taught sign language, then used it to sign a lie.

After the narrator’s best friend has died, the story ends this way:

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

(Quoted from Hempel, Amy.  “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” at .)

I read that and have nothing to say.  I’m filled with fear, that I will never find so perfect an ending to any story I write.

Then I open Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife, a novel about a Jewish couple who meet in Prague but then are separated by the Nazi invasion.  The novel is about their lifelong effort to extricate themselves from the trauma, the husband from a distance, while guiltily knowing what happened to so many, and the wife from her interment in the camps.  Early on in the text, I find this passage in the wife’s POV:

 When the Vltava freezes, it turns the color of an oyster shell.  As a child, I watched men rescue swans trapped within its frozen current, cutting them out with ice picks to free their webbed feet.

(Quoted from Richman, Alyson.  The Lost Wife.  New York:  Berkley Books, p. 6.)

I stop reading, stunned by the perfection of that image.  It sets up the writer/reader contract, but more than that, it connects me with a larger cruelty–one of the most graceful of birds caught unaware in a flash freeze, thereby needing rescue by man-made methods as crude and hazardous as the entrapping ice.

And yes, I think of Darwin, of his inability to connect a loving God with the cruelty of nature.

Both authors point to mystery, that which remains unexplained, unknown, except by divine revelation.  Who otherwise can explain the premature death of a young woman or the agony of the holocaust?

Amy Hempel THE LOST WIFE Alyson Richman


Posted in Alyson Richman, Amy Hempel, Charles Darwin, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, mystery, reading, THE LOST WIFE | Leave a comment

Ambiguity, Complexity, and Mystery

I just returned from two days spent at the Ohio University Literary Festival, where lectures were delivered by writers Amy Hempel (if you don’t know her story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” read it without passing Go), Richard Rodriguez (whom I will stalk in print for the rest of my days),  and 2010 NBA award winning poet, Terrance Hayes.  It was Hayes who brought up the topic I’m thinking about this morning; specifically, the difference between the terms in the title.  Until the conference, I wasn’t making distinctions between these terms.  To be honest, I didn’t think about them in the same sentence.

Terrance Hayes changed that.

Ambiguity is a lack of clarity that results in a question being unanswerable because the question itself is not clear.  Ambiguity, in writing, is a flaw.

Complexity is the result of the intersection of two disparate emotions or ideas.  It results from the character who acts against his own priorities and values, because, well, we all have internal conflicts that don’t make logical sense.  My March 20 post on internal conflict elaborates on this topic. Complexity, in writing, is necessary.

Mystery is the result of a clearly stated question that has no definitive answer.  It opens the work to the larger questions like, what makes life meaningful? or how is justice served? It enlarges what it touches by exposing the gray edges of certainty.  It is what I, as a writer, mean to poke in my work in such a way that the reader enters a larger sphere of questions than the ones s/he is already asking.

Clarify ambiguity, develop complexity, embrace mystery.

Amy Hempel Richard Rodriguez Terrance Hayes

Posted in ambiguity, Amy Hempel, complexity, mystery, reading, Richard Rodriguez, Terrance Hayes, writing | Leave a comment

The Need for Obsession

I am a writer.  I am also a tennis player.  (In fact, I have torn the ligaments in my right elbow playing tennis, and in lieu of having Tommy John surgery, I wear a wrist-to-shoulder metal  Bledsoe brace on my racquet arm which makes me look like the bionic woman.)  I frequently think about what the two have in common–like the need to learn the craft by taking lessons, then putting in hours of painstaking practice, until certain skills become automatic.  How many top- spin forehands have I hit in my life?  Too many to count.  And how many balls did I serve before the ball consistently hit the court in the proper box, let alone where I wanted it?  A googolplex, at least.  I started as a child.

But am I obsessed?  It seems that I am not, for when a tennis friend suggested that I write a novel about tennis, nothing resonated. “Anne Lamott has already done that,” I said, referring to Lamott’s book Crooked Little Heart, as if only one novel could be written on any subject.  It was an excuse lamer than my right arm, so how do I explain that a sport I’ve allowed to occupy so much time, for which I’ve risked and sustained significant injury, is not an obsession?

It leads me to think about subjects that do resonate.  A writer friend who sees my drafts before they are published noted that all my books have young women who figure prominently.  Another said, “Everything you write is about death.”  Yes.  Because the one thing I’ve never gotten over is the death of my sister, never mind she died before I was born.

So how do my current topics–my historical subjects–draw on that obsession?  Both the Darwin and the Einstein marriages and careers turn on a dead daughter.  It’s well-known that Charles Darwin’s faith deteriorated at the death of his daughter Annie.  But imagine my surprise when, well into my research for the novel, I first saw a photo of her gravestone.  Her name was Anne Elizabeth–my dead sister’s name, spelled exactly the same way.  The god of synchronicity was laughing.  No surprise then, that Henrietta Darwin, Annie’s next younger sister, has a point of view in the novel. There’s the obsession:  how death affects young women.

Why young women?  Because this is an area of my life where I continue to come of age as I explore what my sister’s death meant to my life.  I was the youngest child in my family, but my sister, being the oldest, left her place vacant.  I leap-frogged my brother, the middle child, and took over for her, becoming both the youngest and the oldest, carrying on my back a rag-picker’s bag full of ambiguity and identity confusion.   So yes, Henrietta Darwin is me.  And Emma Darwin is my mother.  And yes, my mother really did carry my dead sister’s body around at the wake.  I wasn’t born yet.  But in the few moments when the subject came up–the subject shrouded in a sacred silence in my household–mother described how she couldn’t let her baby go, how in the years that followed–years she was taking care of my brother and me, both babies, she had trouble covering us up at night when Anne was out in the rain.   I don’t remember the context of these revelations.  Perhaps it was the day I unearthed an unlabeled box in the hall closet.  Inside were my sister’s tiny pink bathrobe, matching slippers, and her well-worn Raggedy Ann doll, called DeeDee Ann.

All the best details come from real life.

Albert and Mileva Einstein also “lost” a daughter, but the fact was either unknown or obscured until their love letters surfaced in the closet of his oldest son’s wife, the person who cleaned out Mileva’s apartment in Zurich.   The little girl lived until she was two, at which time she contracted scarlet fever and likely died.  But the best efforts of scholars have not turned up documentation of her birth, baptism, or death–either because the shame of her being born prior to their marriage caused Mileva’s father to make certain records were destroyed, or because the records were destroyed in Serbia’s many wars.  My novel, as yet, is incomplete.  I’ve not yet written the passage where the baby is born.  But I know my identification with Mileva is so strong, it takes conscious effort to write Albert’s side of the story.

It takes this kind of obsession to sustain the work of writing a novel–the way the work gives back to the author.

What obsession is driving the work for you?

Annie Darwin’s gravestoneHenrietta Darwin Emma Darwin as a young woman

Posted in Annie Darwin, Charles Darwin, death, Einstein, Einstein's children, Einstein's Daughter, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, Mileva Maric, obsession, point of view, reading, Serbia, writing, Zurich | 1 Comment

The Inner Conflict

I will be teaching a workshop on writing the endings of short stories and novels at the Mad Anthony Writers’ Workshop April 13-15 in Hamilton, Ohio.  In the process of preparing, I was made conscious of subjects that generally remain unconscious as I’m first-drafting a novel; specifically, my point-of-view character’s inner conflict.  The inner conflict is that struggle by which a character prevents himself from getting what he desperately wants.  Sound counter-intuitive?  It is.  And yet we all sabotage ourselves for perfectly good reasons.  So do our characters.

Charles Darwin, the subject of my currently circulating novel, SANDWALK, provides a case in point.  Here was a man who desperately wanted to be a gentleman, as defined by 19th century Britain.  He was afraid to upset the status quo, and yet, his life work was to develop a theory that would challenge the very existence of God.  How did he deal with this?  He dawdled.  He spent twenty years on his research, writing directions to his wife to publish the material after his death.  What compelled him?  The death of his daughter, whose suffering led him to deny the possibility of a loving God.  It happened, when he received an essay from Alfred Russel Wallace describing a theory too like his, that he was faced with the necessity to publish immediately, or lose credit for his twenty years of work.  Ambition, specifically the need to prove himself to a father who predicted Darwin would never amount to anything, drove him to establish himself as co-author of a theory that would make him the target of 150 years of debate.  Some argue that this internal conflict was the cause of the sickness that made him an invalid for the productive years of his life.

And what of Albert Einstein?  A story was aired on “All Things Considered” last evening announcing the web publication of Einstein’s letters.  The letter read aloud on the air was one he wrote to his mother, Pauline, when she was terminally ill with stomach cancer in which Albert describes his sadness at the extremity of her suffering.  The fragment of the letter, considered by itself, would suggest Albert was a dutiful son who dearly loved his mother.  Not so!  In fact, she was the source of his greatest inner conflict, her demand that he conform to the bourgeois standards of middle class German Jewry in conflict with his desire to live a Bohemian lifestyle and marry Mileva Maric, the Serbian Orthodox Christian his mother despised.  The drama of his life played out in opposition to his mother, while, at the same time, he was unable ultimately to disobey her, finally leaving Mileva and marrying his cousin, Elsa, as was the common practice among the Jews of Germany.

How are inner conflicts resolved in fiction?  There are two choices:  The character realizes he is sabotaging himself and changes, or he fails to realize it.  The meaning of the ending is affected by this choice.

The techniques for delivering the choice will be covered in my workshop.

Albert Einstein   Charles Darwin

Posted in Charles Darwin, Einstein, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, inner conflict, Mileva Maric, Pauline Einstein, reading, writing | Leave a comment

Time out to luxuriate in gorgeous prose

The writing matters.

Last summer I was in 2nd and Charles, the used bookstore associated with Books-a-Million Corporation, browsing the remaindered paperbacks.   These are new books, sold for insultingly low prices, an insult I’m willing to inflict to benefit my reading habit.   It’s always surprising to see who turns up there.

Never mind it’s December 23rd and I still need another gift for my son’s Almost-Fiancee.  She’s a reader, an English teacher, so I madly start reading first pages in the pile of yet-to-be-read books beside my bed.  Aha!  A book by Edna O’Brien–a name I remember repeated by a much-loved writing teacher long ago.  The Almost-Fiancee is Irish with a grandmother whose lilt sounds like she just stepped off the boat.

The Light of Evening.  A resonant title.

I open the book.  Ohhhh.  The prose is so gorgeous, I can hardly breathe.  I dare to quote from the Prologue:

There is a photograph of my mother as a young woman in a white dress, standing by her mother who is seated out-of-doors on a kitchen chair, in front of a plantation of evergreen trees.  Her mother is staring with a grave expression, her gnarled fingers clasped in prayer.  Despite the virgin marvel of the white dress and the obligingness of her stance, my mother has heard the mating calls of the world byond and has seen a picture of a white ship far out at sea.  Her eyes are shockingly soft and beautiful.

The photograph would have been taken of a Sunday and for a special reason, perhaps on account of the daughter’s looming departure.  A stillness reigns.  One can feel the sultriness, the sun beating down on the tops of the drowsing trees and over the nondescript fields, on and on to the bluish swath of mountain.  Later as the day cools and they have gone in, the cry of the corncrake will carry across those same fields and over the lake to the blue-hazed mountain, such a lonely evening sound to it, like the lonely evening sound of the mothers, saying it is not our fault that we weep so, it is nature’s fault that makes us first full, then empty.

Such is the wrath of the mothers, such is the cry of the mothers, such is the lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the bluish tinge, the pismires, the gloaming, and dying dust.

I’ve never seen a corncrake, (had, in fact, never heard of one), but I will never forget the sound.  It’s internalized now.  She did that, the miracle of words on the page.

Listen to the words, the repetition.  Look at the images that repeat and therefore linger.  Feel the fullness, the emptiness, the groaning of those mothers, in the moment of birth, in the moment of separation.

I stand amazed.  Yes.  That’s how it is.  I am so grateful to the one who said it.

The Light of Evening  Edna O’Brien

Posted in Edna O'Brien, image, prose, reading, sound, The Light of Evening | Leave a comment

Learning from the Historical Fiction of Other Writers

I’m just finishing up a debut novel by Debra Dean called The Madonnas of Leningrad, a must-read for art lovers and anyone who wants to know what it was like to survive the terrible winter of the Nazi seige of Leningrad.  The protagonist is a docent in Leningrad’s enormous museum called The Hermitage, but as the Nazis descend, she is called upon to help pack up the art works to be shipped to a safe location, then to spy out fires set by Nazi bombs, then to maintain a water-soaked building.

Juxtaposed against this story in intermittent chapters is the story of her marriage and descent into Alzheimers in old age.

The dramatic fracture the juxtaposition causes is not disorienting, though I am continually evaluating which story most intrigues me.  The stories each inform the other, so for example, the Leningrad material gradually reveals how the marriage actually came about, and the Alzheimer’s story (interesting in itself) is delivering material that might be delivered in an epilogue in a linear novel.

In addition to the time being fractured, so is place.  The historical Leningrad setting is radically different from the contemporary American locale of the Alzheimer’s story, where we meet the protagonists eventual family as they meet for a wedding and struggle to deal with the problem of how to secure their elderly parents’ increasingly endangered lives.

(Being an art lover myself, an additional intrigue is all the named paintings.  Many of the paintings I’ve seen in person–living in a city with a wonderful art museum as well as traveling to many I’m wanting to reread the book with a computer so I can  examine all the details.)

The madonna motif is presented in many paintings, then completed by the mysterious pregnancy of the protagonist, this in utero character appearing as an adult in the contemporary story.

I really love this novel.  Though the protagonist is not a famous person as in my fictional biographies, the structure serves as a paradigm for a way to set up a life where the time frame is not limited to 17 months as in my Darwin novel.

Here’s the Hermitage Museum website:

Here’s an interesting interview with the author where she describes her process:

The Madonnas of Leningrad Debra Dean The Hermitage Museum, Leningrad Da Vinci’s Litta Madonna

Posted in Debra Dean, Fictional biography, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, Hermitage, historical fiction, methods for creativity, reading, Siege of Leningrad, The Madonnas of Leningrad, writing | Leave a comment

Grappling with Gaps in the Record

In keeping with my resolve not to change the historical record where it exists, I still wrestle with how to handle the gaps.   The writing of fictional biography gives me some license, of course, but I mostly interpret that to mean that I am imagining the scenes that are suggested by the historical record and making up the dialogue.  I’m also inventing characteristics and histories for minor characters who are documented in the record, but about whom little is written.  Mrs. Grut is an example, in my Darwin book.  She was the children’s  governess at a critical time in the Darwin household and appears in the Darwin letters but in no other place.  I knew she tried to make a proper Victorian household out of Emma Darwin’s fun house full of children–to the chagrin and detriment of all.  I had to create a character who was motivated to put things in order and provoke consternation.  Okay.  I’m fine with that.

What I find more troubling  is a matter like Mileva Maric’s sister Zorka, who was known to have developed something like schizophrenia.  What I don’t know is when it developed.  I can read statistics on when young women typically develop symptoms and I can read letters, but it seems that as soon as I write her into a scene with symptoms at an age of onset consistent with statistics, I read that Milos Maric (Mileva’s father) sent all his children abroad to school.  Now, how likely is it that an 18-year-old would thrive abroad at school with symptoms of schizophrenia?  I’m certain that Zorka was suffering symptoms by age 24, but then, after that, she went to help Mileva with the children during periods of Mileva’s debilitation after Einstein left the family. It doesn’t make sense to me that someone with unmedicated schizophrenia would be able to run a household with young children.

Perhaps the diagnosis is wrong.  Zorka was in Serbia and would have been hidden in the attic like Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre to avoid sending her to some brutal asylum where, at that time, she would have been chained to a wall or confined in some torture device and possibly put on public display like at Bedlam Hospital in England.  Zorka would not have been seen by a professional until later, when she went to Zurich and was treated at the Burgholzli Psychiatric Hospital, where the Einstein’s son Eduard, also schizophrenic, was interred at times.   So, there was a serious dysfunction of a psychological nature, which eventually Zorka self-medicated with alcohol, but it seemed to relapse at times.  One relative/neighbor interviewed by Michele Zackheim for her book Einstein’s Daughter said that before Mileva came home to visit her in later life, Zorka stopped drinking and put the house in order.   There’s volition, devotion, and shame in that behavior.  She knew she didn’t want Mileva to see how she was living.  Is that kind of self-awareness typical of schizophrenia?

There are two other bits of data that make me put age of onset sooner rather than later.  One is that when Mileva, already pregnant with Lieserl and still unmarried, traveled from Serbia to Switzerland to visit Albert in secret, he sent her a book on hypnotism by Auguste Forel who was then the director of the Burgholzli.  Why that book?  While it is true that Mileva took a psychology course at some point in her education, they were not known to have read and discussed anything but physics together, so it seems out of context unless Mileva had requested he send her anything he could find to help her help Zorka.  He was in Schaffhausen, tutoring a young Englishman, and living in a household with a family.  Perhaps it was the only remotely relevant book he could find in a Schaffhausen library.


The other data bit that makes me wonder about early onset for Zorka is that after Mileva’s baby was born, Albert and Mileva considered putting her up for adoption.  Why would they not have asked the Maric family to keep the baby?  She had already caused them shame by the fact of her unwed pregnancy.  They were wealthy and had servants, though Marija Maric (Mileva’s mother) continued to help with all house and farm work.  That means she was healthy.  The little girl lived there for 18 months, which seems a long time if she was going to be given up.  Perhaps Mileva’s parents couldn’t handle another dependent in addition to Zorka?

It’s all puzzling.  Then there is the fate of Lieserl–another unknown–except that Mileva clearly knows what happened to her and she’s a point-of-view character, so how do I get around that one?  I’m leaning heavily on Michele Zackheim’s interviews with family members and friends in Einstein’s Daughter, though I’m not certain how to explain a few things there, either.  For example, if Lieserl was born with Downs Syndrome–as Albert seems to have reported to a colleague later in his life–why would Albert have at the time written “I’m very sorry about what has befallen Lieserl.  It’s so easy to suffer lasting effects from scarlet fever.”  To me, this sounds as though scarlet fever caused a disability she didn’t have before.  If Lieserl had died of the scarlet fever (lasting effect, indeed!), he would not have written the sentences that follow:  “As what is the child registered?  We must take precautions that problems don’t arise for her later.”

What is the likelihood that Lieserl was a Downs baby?  95% of Downs children are born to older mothers with no hereditary component.  Mileva was 25 at the time of conception.  The percentage of Downs children born due to other factors is 2-3% and then, only 1 in 3 due to a hereditary defect in one parent.  The fact that their third child was schizophrenic then, hardly seems to be related.

And, if Lieserl had been born a Downs baby, would Albert have been pleased when Mileva got pregnant a second time, after they were married? Even without a hereditary factor–likely not known at that time–wouldn’t the feelings be more complex at the thought of a second go-round?  But that same letter begins “I’m not the least bit angry that poor Dollie [his nickname for Mileva] is hatching a new chick.  In fact, I’m happy about it and had already given some thought to whether I shouldn’t see to it that you get a new Lieserl. . . .  Brood on it very carefully so that something good will come of it.”

So what can I conclude that will satisfy the parameters in this letter?  This is the primary source.

Michele Zackheim Einstein’s Daughter by Michele Zackheim The Love Letters:  Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric–my primary source

Posted in Auguste Forel, Bulgholzli Psychiatric Hospital, Eduard Einstein, Einstein's Daughter, Fictional biography, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, Marija Maric, Michele Zackheim, Mileva Maric, Milos Maric, point of view, reading, schizophrenia, Serbia, writing, Zorka Maric, Zurich | 2 Comments

Grappling with Time

In keeping with my last post where I notated such helpful creative habits as building on predecessors and keeping the company of like minds, I turned in the night–one of spotty sleep–to the short stories of Andrea Barrett, whose collection, Ship Fever, won the National Book Award.  It was one of those serendipitous choices, the side of my bed being lined with books to select depending on mood.  (I went to sleep initially reading Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts which provoked nightmares based on a scene where a Gentile woman has her head shaved and is dragged through Nuremberg in a carnival-like atmosphere to be jeered at, poked, and prodded by the crowd for the offense of being engaged to a Jew.  A book I’ve already read feels safer under such circumstances.)  And what better mentor/predecessor, what more like mind than Andrea Barrett,  to answer some thorny questions I’ve been wrestling with in the Einstein manuscript?  Ship Fever is a collection of short stories about ground-breaking naturalists like Gregor Mendel, Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, etc.

I’ve spent the last week rewriting a chapter I thought was in good shape when I noticed I’d written it in the past tense.  That’s how it came out, the way I heard the voice of the story in my mind.  I was about to tack it onto the 100 plus pages already written when I realized I had changed the ongoing front story into present tense, reserving past tense for flashbacks.  But now, realizing I wasn’t hearing the story in present tense, I began to ask myself why, when it’s possible, of course, to write the front story in past tense and cast the flashbacks in past perfect.  (Sorry if this is too technical for the grammarphobes.  I’m a grammar nerd.)

Mindful that I need to have a reason for my choices, and that the reason in some way needs to mirror the task of the novel, I continued to grapple with this tense issue.  Originally, I cast the front story into present tense because there were so many shifts in time in the opening passage of the novel, it seemed to help eliminate confusion for the reader. These time shifts I justified by labeling the opening section TIME, playing with Einstein’s revolutionary idea that time is not a constant.  (Subsequent sections will have other physics-related titles like SPACE, FORCE, LIGHT, depending on how the metaphor works for what’s happening in the text.)  But this still doesn’t demand I use present tense.

Enter Andrea Barrett’s story “Rare Bird.”  Voila.  Present tense.  Hmmm.  The story is about a disenfranchised, educated woman in 19th century England who challenges Linnaeus’ already-established notion that swallows hibernate underwater during the winter, a fact that, if true, supports Darwin’s evolutionary theory.  (Linnaeus was the naturalist who categorized plants and animals with genus and species designations, a fact the reader already knows if s/he’s read Barrett’s stories in order, for the story “The English Pupil” precedes “Rare Bird” and establishes this fact.)  It occurs to me in looking at Barrett’s story that she’s also juggling layers of time, of pastness.  If her task is to bring the past into the reader’s present, it makes sense to use the present tense.

It’s easier to see on someone else’s work.

Then, her text solved an even thornier problem.  I have two scenes juxtaposed in this first section where Mileva is pregnant in the first, but then I flash back to before she was pregnant.   This is illogical at best, but when I juggled the scenes into chronological order, I lose the dramatic effect.  Again, enter Barrett, dealing with a time problem.  Her narrator says outright to the reader, “It’s September now–not the September following their meeting but the one after that:  1764.”  Well, why not?  Use the narrator to situate the reader.

Thank you, Andrea. (May I call you Andrea?)  It’s hard to argue with your logic.

Zytglogge Clock Tower, Bern Ship Fever Andrea Barrett

Posted in Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever, Time, verb tense | Leave a comment

The Path of Creation

This morning I came across this letter from Martha Graham  to Agnes DeMille, both dancers that left a long trail of amazing choreography, works which are not only still being performed, but which arguably form the backbone of  some dance companies’ repertoire.

A Letter to Agnes De Mille

There is a vitality,
a life force,
a quickening
that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.

And If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine
how good it is
nor how valuable it is
nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly
to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Keep the channel open…
No artist is pleased…

There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes “us” MORE alive than the others.

Martha Graham
( – a letter to Agnes De Mille-)

On one level, Graham’s advice strikes me personally, defining my task as a writer.  Stop judging, stop seeing your work through the judgments of others.  Keep the channel open and respond to it, because whatever anyone else thinks of the work, including myself in any given mood, the task, if my unique personhood is to be expressed, is only to keep the channel open.  It’s the kind of advice that any artist must continually return to, other voices being so anxious to shout down the creative impulse. 

On another level, it challenges me to think about both Darwin and Einstein, subjects of my fictional biographies, to think about what they did to keep their channels open.  In Darwin’s case, I’m aware that despite excessive approval-orientation, he produced a work that brought down 150 years of controversy by identifying and connecting to his passion and following wherever it took him.  As a child, he preferred collecting beetles to memorizing Latin vocabulary.  As a young man he incurred the wrath of his father by dropping out of two academic programs–medicine and theology–to go aboard HMS Beagle as the ship’s naturalist, sending back barrels of specimens to be studied by men who were then England’s top naturalists.  He didn’t yet see himself in their company, but as his ideas morphed, he dared to follow where they led, understanding that he had immense problems to solve–such as how species crossed oceans and appeared on different continents.  He built on the work of his predecessors and communicated with his fellow scientists regularly, swapping ideas, and particularly with Joseph Hooker, the botanist that inherited the directorship of Kew Gardens from his father.  And he didn’t allow the fact that he was a less-than-competent writer–Did you ever wonder why you memorize bullet points but don’t read his work in school?–to prevent him pursuing his goal and publishing his work.

What of Einstein?  He began writing papers and publishing in the Annalen, Europe’s most prestigious journal of physics, during the frustrating nearly two-year period when he could not find a teaching job.  Rejected for one teaching post after another, he used his time to immerse himself in the content and arguments of his era’s current thinkers, particularly Boltzmann, Mach, Ostwald, and Lennard.  He kept his mind mulling the problems his contemporaries encountered.  He wrote and published, and though this wasn’t ultimately what opened the door to his job at the Patent Office–a friend’s father did that–he didn’t insist on a direct path.  All of his concentration culminated in an explosion of productivity–five papers in 1905, just two years after he took his job at the Patent Office.  Now granted, Einstein’s brain was different, and we all don’t have that advantage, but there are methods here.  

What have I learned?  

  • Identify your passion and follow where it leads. 

  • Pursue the passion despite the nay-sayers.

  • Don’t allow the immensity of the problem overcome your pursuit.

  • Build on your predecessors.

  • Cultivate the company of like minds.

  • Don’t allow your weaknesses to defeat you.

  • Immerse yourself in your materials, even when your path is blocked.

  • Don’t insist on one path to your goal.  Walk through open doors, pursuing alternatives.

  • When you’ve done these things, wait patiently for the pay-off.

And incidentally, Agnes DeMille was not a very good dancer. 

Martha Graham Agnes DeMille

Posted in Agnes DeMille, Darwin, Einstein, genius, innovation, making art, Martha Graham, reading, writing | 2 Comments