What's the secret to writing well? As I've argued previously, an awful lot of people seem to think they know, yet their "rules for writers" are almost always (pardon the technical linguistics jargon) bullshit. For example, "Show, don't tell" is frequently bad advice. In the right context, the passive voice is fine. Elmore Leonard's most famous rule, "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue", is sheer silliness. Even the sainted Orwell's rules are a bit rubbish: the final one is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous", which means his advice is really just "Don't write barbarically". So it doesn't bode well that the psychologist Steven Pinker has published his own advice book, The Sense Of Style. Judging by a recent interview at edge.org, however, this one might be different. Writing, Pinker points out, is inherently a psychological phenomenon, "a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind". So one place to begin is with actual psychology.
Information: there’s a lot of it about. In his new book The Organised Mind, psychologist Daniel Levitin notes that we consume five times as much as we did in 1986. He also puts it like this: if you took one person’s share of all the human-created information in the world, wrote each byte of it on an index card and spread them out, you’d blanket Massachusetts and Connecticut. (Don’t actually do this – you’d cause chaos.) But then he drops his bombshell: we’re not really suffering from “information overload” at all. Your brain is incredible at storing data; some neuroscientists believe almost everything you’ve ever experienced is in there somewhere. Which is a relief. I don’t need to worry that my ability to recall the lyrics to Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in their entirety means I’m using up space needed for something else.
On the worst kind of New York day – soon after heavy snow, when everything’s covered in a slurry of mud, slush and litter – I stepped off a busy street into the lobby of a building I’d not visited before. I gave my name to the doorman, who murmured in recognition, and made my way down a corridor. I typed a code into a keypad and the door of a suite clicked open. If this sounds shady, it won’t help to add that I was paying for it by the hour. But all I did when I got inside – a spotless room, with Scandinavian furnishings and a yoga mat – was to write part of this column and stare out the window. I’d booked the space through Breather, a startup offering “peace and quiet on demand”: spaces for around £20 an hour, currently only in New York, San Francisco, Ottawa and Montreal. (To pre-empt your questions: the rules include “a zero tolerance policy for anything illegal or inappropriate”, and rooms are cleaned after use.) Breather’s a fabulous idea. On the other hand, it’s troubling that it’s a fabulous idea. What does it say about the world that there’s money to be made in giving people a few minutes to hear themselves think?
When publishing a book in Britain or the US about eastern spiritual practices – meditation, yoga, reiki – there’s an unwritten rule as to the cover design: it must feature a lotus flower, pebble, clear sky, still lake or smiling statue. (You can generate titles by randomly combining those words, too: Smiling Pebble In A Clear Sky: The Art Of Meditation. Out now in all good bookshops!) These cliches reflect the widespread assumption that the traditions of south-east Asia are all about slowing down, looking inwards and cultivating calm: the things you do, in other words, when you’re desperate for a break from the pace of modern (implicitly, western) life. But for Gregg Krech, an expert on Japanese psychology, that’s only half the story. Look closely at such philosophies, he argues in a new book, The Art Of Taking Action, and you’ll find they’re full of practical advice for getting things done. True, his book’s cover shows some bamboo strips by a pond, but there’s nothing so placid about what’s inside.
A few events I'm involved with in the UK over the next few months. If you're in the vicinity, I'd love it if you could stop by and say hello:
Wilderness Festival: Conversation with Matthew Quick
At the Wilderness Festival near Oxford I'm excited to be hosting a conversation with the novelist Matthew Quick – the brilliant author, among other things, of The Silver Linings Playbook. That's at 12.45pm on Friday August 8, in the Secret Forum.
Do you long to become a "thought leader", thinkfluencing your way from TED talk to tech conference, lauded for your insights? I hope not. But if so, you could do worse than consult a paper published in 1971 by the maverick sociologist Murray Davis, entitled "That's Interesting!" (I found it via Adam Grant.) What is it, Davis asks, that makes certain thinkers – Marx, Freud, Nietzsche – legendary? "It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true," he writes, "but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting." Even in the world of academia, most people aren't motivated by the truth. What they want, above all, is not to be bored.
If you're feeling overstretched, at work or at home, let me make a suggestion: you need more inboxes in your life. I'm aware that this may strike you as the delusional ramblings of (to use the neuroscientific term) a wrong 'un. Isn't your existing inbox already overstuffed with emails? Who needs more of that? But I mean it. I've felt this way ever since installing Evernote, an app that's been called an "everything bucket", into which I fling all manner of electronic clutter: articles to read later, thoughts jotted down in text files, photos I take on my phone. These all accumulate in my Evernote inbox. Then, once or twice a week, I spend half an hour clearing it out: filing things, reading others, deleting rubbish. If this sounds like pointless bother, let me blow your mind: your life's already full of inboxes. You just don't realise it yet. And it can be surprisingly liberating once you do.
At a new cafe in Shoreditch in London that made the headlines a few weeks back, you don't pay for your coffee or the Wi-Fi; instead, you pay just to be there, at a rate of 3p per minute. Doubtless this innovative approach will go down well in the vicinity of what I believe we're now supposed to think of as Britain's new technology hub, aka the Old Street roundabout. But a pay-per-minute cafe would put me on edge. Being conscious of how my money's dribbling away is the exact opposite of the mindset I hope to achieve while sipping a latte. My goal is to forget the passage of time, however briefly – not to be reminded that the sooner I leave, the more I'll save.
'It really was the last time when the world was simple and small," sighed the US television writer Adam Goldberg a while back, explaining his decision to set his new sitcom, The Goldbergs, in the 1980s. What made that era different, he argued, was that the internet hadn't yet erased distance; your world consisted mainly of your immediate family and surroundings. But if you teleported back to Goldberg's world in 1985, I don't think it's his lack of web access you'd notice first. Like me, Goldberg is in his late 30s; in the 1980s, he was a child. "The 80s wasn't 'the last time the world was simple'," one commentator, Paul Waldman, chided on his blog. "The 80s was the last time your world was simple." The hazy memory of a simpler past is enormously powerful in politics: see the Tea Party, or the hate-nostalgia of the Daily Mail. But look closely at the era being praised, whether it's the 40s or the 90s, and you'll frequently find the praise-giver was about seven at the time. Unless you're eight, the world really has changed since you were seven. But possibly not as much as you have.
What's the best question to ask on a first date? Many forests have been felled for books dissecting this question, but a few years back the dating website OKCupid.com made a startling intervention. If you want to know the chances of a first encounter ending in sex, its analysts said, the question to ask is, "Do you like the taste of beer?" If you're concerned with long-term compatibility, the question is, "Do you like horror movies?" When registering, OKCupid users answer hundreds of seemingly innocuous queries – the one about beer, it transpires, is most strongly correlated with positive views of first-date sex. Liking or disliking horror films, meanwhile, is a better predictor of a lasting relationship than beliefs about God. We could invent theories to explain this: maybe people who score highly on "sensation-seeking", as psychologists call it, enjoy both casual sex and cheap ways to get drunk? But the point about Big Data is that you don't need theories. The correlations are there, whether or not they seem to make sense.