Friday, January 29, 2016

The Author of "The Geography of Genius" Talks About the Importance of Place



Eric Weiner's first book, The Geography of Bliss, found him in search of the happiest places on Earth. Now, in The Geography of GeniusThe Geography of Genius*, he endeavors to find out why certain places and times in history produced an inordinate number of geniuses--from philosophers to scientists to artists, to that guy who invented the iPhone. The book—an irreverent and surprisingly entertaining blend of historical biography, travel essay, and sociological study is packed with fun facts: Why was Michelangelo such a jerk to Leonardo da Vinci? Why was the QWERTY keyboard popularized despite the fact that it's not an intuitive or efficient way to type (an argument I repeatedly had with my Junior High typing teacher). So, basically, this book will keep you supplied with enough conversation fodder to animate boring dinner parties for years.

Here, Mr. Weiner talks about his fascination with place, especially when it comes to finding the right place to write.

There are dog people and there are cat people. There are numbers people and word people. I'm a place person. Place matters to me. I view the world—and the world of ideas—through the prism of place.

This explains a lot. It explains my fierce wanderlust. It also explains why I'm so finicky about where I write. Finding the right place, the perfect place, to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, is a passion of mine that often crosses that thin line into obsession.

Before you judge me, let me point out that I am not alone. Many famous writers were equally picky. Proust, sensitive to even the slightest disturbance, wrote in his cork-lined bedroom. Dickens always slept facing north, believing it would improve his writing. The poet Friedrich Schiller always kept a carton of rotten apples under his desk when he wrote. He said it reminded him of the countryside. Mark Twain would often pace, sometimes for hours, until inspiration arrived, "as if a new spirit had flown into the room," as his daughter once said.

For me, there's a long list of places where I can't write. I can't write in libraries. I find the silence deafening. I can't write at home. Not a word. There are too many convenient excuses for procrastination: doing the dishes, alphabetizing the spice rack, redoing the dishes, checking up on the cats. There's too much food available, too, and that is dangerous. When facing a blank page, I turn to serial snacking. I've been known to gain five pounds when working on a particularly tricky chapter.

A fellow author told me he finds writing in bookstores inspiring—if all of these people could finish a book so can I. Not me. I find them intimidating. If all these people could finish a book, what the heck is wrong with me? There is one exception, though, to my no-bookstore rule: a wonderful shop in Coral Gables, Florida called Books & Books. There's something about its clean lines, its almost austere minimalism, that inspires. I wrote several chapters of my first book, The Geography of Bliss, ensconced at one of its cafĂ© tables.

I do like to write in coffee shops. We writers, after all, are really machines that convert caffeine into words. More than that, I like the anonymity of the coffee shop, being alone in crowd. I enjoy having other people around, but not necessarily interacting them. I wouldn't go as far as Sartre who declared that "hell is other people" but on those rare occasions when my muse is speaking to me, I don't want anyone else interrupting her.

I like to write in coffee shops but not any coffee shop. Overly elegant ones don't work for me (too much pressure to justify my eight dollar latte) nor do ones that are too shabby. Ambient noise is crucial too. It must be precisely 70 decibels. That, you see, is what researchers at the University of Illinois-Champaign found is the ideal sound level for creative thinking: not too loud but not complete silence either. It's called the "Starbucks Effect," and explains a lot about why you find so many writers camped out at coffee shops.

Oddly, I prefer coffee shops with few AC outlets. Why? Because creativity requires constraints, and there is no greater constraint than time. Knowing that the clock is ticking on my battery power motivates me to make the best use of that precious commodity.

Even if a coffee shop meets all of my criteria, I never remain there for too long, though. I'm a restless writer. It's as if there is only so much creative pixie dust in each place, and, once depleted, it's time to move on.

When that happens, I often retreat to a shared writers' space. The one I belong to, in Washington, DC, is close to perfection. Yes, there are other writers present (sorry Sartre) but I'm under no obligation to speak with them. There is unlimited coffee (good) and a dearth of tempting food (also good). If the words aren't flowing, I can always retreat to the designated "Procrastination Zone," and commiserate with fellow stuck writers.

If all this fails, there is always my writing space of last resort: the airplane. The thin air loosens my inhibitions, the bad food fails to tempt, and the knowledge that, soon, I will find myself in some new and possibly magical locale, never fails to inspire.

*The Geography of Genius was chosen as one of the Best Books of January.


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