Neal Stephenson on Speaking Arrangements; Art and Artists; Correspondence and Productive Writing

On Speaking

[My literary agent] Darhansoff & Verrill… handles speaking requests. I almost never accept these. When I do, I charge a lot of money, I demand expensive travel arrangements, and I perform no prep work–I just show up and wing it. Sometimes I make special exceptions to those rules, but when I do, I always end up regretting it. See “Why I Am a Bad Correspondent” and “Why I Am a Sociomediapath” for background.

Neal Stephenson

On Art vs Life

… a novel has roughly the same relationship to a conversation with the author, as a movie does to the actors in it. A movie represents many person-years of work distilled into two hours, and so everything sounds and looks perfect. But if you have ever met a movie actor in person, you know that they are not quite as dazzling and witty (or as tall) as the figures they play in movies. This seems obvious but it always comes as a bit of a letdown anyway.

Likewise, a novel represents years of hard work distilled into a few hundred pages, with all (or at least most) of the bad ideas cut out and thrown away, and the good ideas polished and refined as much as possible. Interacting with an author in person is nothing like reading his novels. Just about everyone who gets an opportunity to meet with an author in person ends up feeling mildly let down, and in some cases, grievously disappointed.

On Correspondence; or, Good Use of Neal Stephenson’s Time

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

That is not such a terrible outcome, but neither is it an especially good outcome. The quality of my e-mails and public speaking is, in my view, nowhere near that of my novels. So for me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people. But I can’t do both; the first one obliterates the second.

Neal Stephenson – Why I am a Bad Correspondent

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