Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Of Note: Robotic Camel Jockeys

After being accused of human rights violations for using children as camel jockeys, Gulf Arab officials have unveiled the robotic camel jockey in an attempt to "bring order to the national sport" of camel racing:

The US State Department and human rights groups have raised the alarm over the exploitation of children by traffickers who pay impoverished parents a paltry sum or simply resort to kidnapping their victims.

The children, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Pakistan, are then smuggled into the oil-rich Gulf states. They are often starved by employers to keep them light and maximize their racing potential. Mounting camels three times their height, the children - some as young as six - face the risk of being thrown off or trampled ... [a] Swiss company was paid around $1.37 million to produce the robots, which will cost just under $5,500 apiece ... Qatar's main camel race carries a prize of more than 190,000 dollars, 10 percent of which goes to the parent or guardian of the jockey, who also gets a monthly salary of up to 400 dollars.

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Friday, April 08, 2005

On Writing: Driving at Night

My new favorite quote, from E.L. Doctorow:

"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

What more is there to say?

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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

On Writing: The Dangers of Blogging

I started writing this post as a reply to Eric, who posted a great comment to yesterday's blog (thanks Eric!). He linked to this discussion, saying I might re-think my plan to start blogging lest it interfere with my writing. His post made me laugh, especially since only moments earlier, I got this very astute note from one of my editors who read yesterday's blog: "I couldn't help but note that you left off your list of the ways a writer on deadline can distract herself one important item: start a blog."

It's true. I'm a procrastinator. This is actually what's behind the nickname Goose, which I'll get to later. Blogging can suck you in, and it can be a major procrastination tool, no doubt. But I'm also one of those writers who actually works her ideas out on paper, so for me, this blogging thing feels like it might actually be productive for my writing. Especially since I'm in the midst of a book right now, which means I can't take on any new stories, even though I have new ideas every day. I feel like blogging is a way of putting thoughts and experiences on paper for future use. I definitely hear what the person in Eric's post is saying: That once you write an idea it's gone, out there. I know a lot of writers who work that way. But I don't. My ideas are more likely to be gone if I don't write them down. My head is too full of my book right now; I have to let the other stuff out or I'll explode.

I've been working on this book for years, and I love doing it, but it's made me stifle so many things I'd otherwise write. I imagine it's a lot like trying to write with a full time job: My dad did this when I was growing up. He worked full time, raised kids, and wrote novels on the side. And he wrote any little thing he could, any chance he got -- on scraps of paper in the doctor's office waiting room, or while sitting it the car waiting to pick me up from school, or at red lights (no joke). That's how this feels to me. Right now, my book is my full time job, and I'm very very fortunate to have a full time job I love to a nearly psychotic level. But I still have all those other thoughts in my head; blogging is me getting those out at the red lights. But it's also a way of practicing my chops, getting my fingers in motion -- I find it very hard to sit down at the start of a day and just write and write and write (and write) on my book. Blogging helps get my fingers in motion, wakes up my writing voice (I used to do that with email, but because so much of my work world happens over email, I've long stopped using it as a warm up because I have so many work emails to deal with).

The key, I think, is just using the blog to vent the system -- to get a few little things out when necessary -- without letting it take over. To that end, I'm only allowing myself 15 minutes of blogging time a day. And I'm using it as a way to communicate with friends and colleagues about what's going on in my life, to cut down on my email time ... that's where the real danger lies: Email is the nemesis of my muse. I can blog for 15 minutes, but once I'm online, I can email for 6 hours and still not catch up with everything in my inbox ...

So, on that note, back to the book.

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Monday, April 04, 2005

On Writing: New New Journalism

For those who don't know, I'm in the throes of an enormous deadline for my book, which means I've been spending a lot of time pacing, dusting, writing, editing, alphabetizing my bookshelves, reading, writing, and pacing some more. In the process I've become painfully aware, once again, of the very bizarre habits I've developed over the years to trick myself into sitting down at my computer to write: Unplug the modem from the wall, step away from the desk, turn on the laptop with nothing on it but my book, type one sentence, jump up, pace around the room, walk the dog, come back, sit back down, type another sentence, maybe two or three, jump up and pace again. Repeat until writing several hundred words between paces. And that's not even the bizarre part of my ritual.

So, the other day, I saw a brand new flashy colored paperback at Barnes and Noble called "The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft." I picked it up, saw it was full of interviews with people like Gay Talese, Ted Conover, Jane Kramer, Susan Orleans, Calvin Trillin, Lawrence Weschler ... This I had to have. So I got it, thinking, I'll use this baby when I teach, which I do from time to time, and I'll read around in it over the next few months. Yeah, right. The next night, I sat down and read through every interview in the book, word for word, in one sitting. I lingered on questions like, Is writing hard for you? What's your writing process? How do you start writing? Why do you make yourself a character in your stories? Do you ever worry about getting involved in the lives of your subjects? ...

I've spent a lot of time thinking about precisely these questions. And I tell you, I sucked this book down like it was my first dose of caffeine after a week-long withdrawal headache. Because (cliché as it may be) it reminded me of what I already know: That I'm not alone. That all writers go through this, and the answers we find to these questions help shape the books we write and make them our own. Writing is torture for most writers -- not constantly, but sometimes. In the end, we do all get our stories written. But the way we do this, well, it's just weird: Gay Talese writes his words on paper, tacks them to a wall, then crosses the room to look at them with binoculars to get a different perspective on his words. Jane Kramer has to cook for hours before she can write. Adrienne Nicole le Blanc sleeps for more than 10 hours, then gets up and start writing before she actually wakes up, so she doesn't have time to realize what she's doing, she just wakes up writing, then keeps going.

So what I'm saying is, this is a great book, and I recommend it to all readers of nonfiction, and all writers of it, regardless of whether you've won a Pulitzer or just published your first story in your neighborhood newsletter. We're all doing exactly the same thing.

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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Of Note: A Beginning and an End

After reading an article today about how the "bloggsphere" is dominated by white men, I decided it was past time for me to start a blog. And the way I see it, the most appropriate place to begin is by paying tribute to one incredible woman whose death marks the end of an important generation of female scientists: Georgeanna S. Jones, the woman behind the first "test tube baby" in the united states, the woman behind the pregnancy test, died March 26th at the age of 92. Georgeanna Jones was one of the country's first reproductive endocrinologists, and half of an amazing husband-and-wife team behind some of the most important advances in women's reproductive medicine in the twentieth century.

A few days before Georgeanna's death, I spoke with her husband, Howard Jones, who's a character in my book. He's well into his 90s, still going strong in science, and possessed of an incredible memory for the history of 20th century medicine (thankfully, since he's one of the last living scientists of his generation).

Much of what I write focuses on the history of medicine, and I often feel the pressure of time while I'm interviewing my sources. For the last eight years, while working on my book, I've been interviewing people in their 80s and 90s, many in failing health (though fortunately Howard Jones isn't one of them). I'm ever-aware that my work with them could be cut off at any moment, and that history could soon vanish with them. I treasure my time with each of them, and the stories they share with me. I only wish I'd gotten a chance to sit down with Georgeanna before she died ...

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