Thursday, February 21, 2008

The hungry outboard mind

In-demand magazine writer Clive Thompson says that writing hundreds of thousands of words for his blog,, has rocked his world professionally, intellectually and socially.

Something has certainly worked for this motor-mouthed, 30-something Canadian. He washed up on Manhattan Island 10 years ago, not exactly a household name, and today he is a high-profile writer for The New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and a frequent contributor to a slew of other major magazines and online publications.

On February 19, Thompson spoke to nearly 200 science writers who gathered to celebrate 25th anniversary of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the past quarter century, this highly sought, nine-month residency program has changed the lives – and generally boosted the careers – of 254 journalists from 22 countries.

Clive Thompson and I are two of those lucky folks.

Thompson began blogging during his 2002-2003 fellowship year because he missed the discipline of writing every day. Knight fellows are urged not to commit journalism during the program, and instead to gorging themselves in the infinite candy stores called MIT and Harvard.

He blogged about cool stuff encountered during classes, guest lectures and field trips (including a first-hand look at health care in Cuba). Pretty soon Thompson came to view the blog as his “outboard brain” – a lasting repository for his thoughts, even the ones he otherwise forgot.

Five years later, Thompson still averages two posts a week – typically inspired by what he reads in scientific journals. What he writes has little in common with the unhinged raving that has given blogging a bad name. Thompson typically spends about 30 minutes thinking about what he’s read, sampling additional sources to get a better handle on what caught his eye in the first place. The writing takes another 45 minutes or so.

“Blogging has made me a better writer,” Thompson said. “It gives me a chance to practice finding the “aha” moment and it keeps me hunting for new material because the blog is hungry.” The blog, in turn, feeds the work that pays the bills.

“It serves as an intellectual calling card for editors, a place where they can see the breadth of my interests,” he said. Sometimes blogging helps him refine ideas that will later turn into stories; sometimes the exercise “helps me discover what I’m interested in when I don’t have to please an editor.”

Like all writers, Thompson has bleak moments when he doesn’t have a story idea in his head but needs to pitch an editor. Desperate, he scrolls through his “outboard brain” until a story idea surfaces from the archived posts.

Some of the blog’s value is more “cognitive” than commercial. “It provides a lasting record of what I’ve been thinking about,” Thompson said. “It reminds me of what I’ve forgotten.”

Thompson also touted the social benefits of the blog for a guy who spends most of his time home alone, playing “Halo” to avoid filing stories. Over the years, the blog has attracted about 2,000 readers who visit and comment weekly.

“These are very smart people,” Thompson said, and without the blog he would never have found this community. If he misunderstands a technical nuance, or if he makes a mistake, loyal readers set him straight in a hurry. He sometimes “road tests” story ideas with them: if a topic resonates he’ll likely pursue it.

There are some places that won’t go. Thompson makes no personal disclosures, posts no family pictures or videos, tells no stories about wild nights on the town or baby’s first tooth.

“I blog to help my thinking and to improve my journalism,” Thompson said.

Judging by the results, it works for him.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mental dynamite

Last night I saw a 2006 movie called "Accepted." The premise is that a high school kid creates a fake college to pacify his status-conscious parents, who've flipped at the news that he was rejected by every college where he applied. So Bartelby and his friends create a logo and website for South Harmon Institute of Technology. One thing leads to another and pretty soon the fake college has a real campus peopled with hundreds of other supposed rejects.

Of course the forces of darkness try to bring down the operation. But Bartelby counters by arguing that the key to real learning is picking something you care passionately about and pursuing it on your own.

I couldn't agree more.

And that's what a writing course like this one is really about. When you are drawn to a story, and set out to tell it accurately and well, you're saying "this is what I most want to learn right now." Then you make it happen, just like one of the characters in "Accepted" whose goal was to blow things up with his mind.